Going the Distance for Children


Adults are bending time and space to satisfy their desire for children by adopting long-frozen embryos.

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Experts estimate there are over 400,000 frozen embryos waiting for their summons in cryo-banks across the country. Many people rightly hold these embryos in high regard, recognizing them as more than tissue—they are human beings in early development, complete with unique DNA sequences, and the active potential, if given a suitable environment, to develop to adulthood. So when these embryos are “adopted,” taken out of storage, implanted into a womb somewhere and allowed to become fully grown people, should we celebrate?

To kidnap is to transport a person, against his will, and confine or falsely imprison him. A remarkable number of child kidnappings are motivated by custody disputes. Divorces and separations inspire some adults to take children across state lines, or often enough overseas, to avoid interference from and interaction with the other parent or guardian.

Using distance as a tool and taking a child elsewhere is helpful when your objective is to prevent kin from coming and finding the child you’ve taken, or if you’d rather not have your grown child go looking for their kin.

These adults try to increase the feeling of impossibility, to make the child and other parent or guardian feel like the chances of finding each other are slim to none. The more daunting the task, the more likely the kidnapped child will accept their circumstances and the more likely the other parent will stop looking or become defeated.

Distance often works to break the connection, but we still hear stories from those who speak up and declare that they’ve been robbed of family and identity.

Jane Jeong Trenka, author of Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee’s Return to Korea and The Language of Blood, was recently featured in the New York Times for her bold return to Korea. At 23, she put her trip “home” on a credit card and communicated with her mother through a translator. Five years after her birth mother’s death, she moved to Korea for good, divorcing her American husband and leaving her job and American family behind. She’s not the only one. The majority of Korean adoptees return to the land of the birth, at least to visit.

Trenka’s reconnection was successful only because she didn’t face the usual obstacles. Her birth mother had provided letters and gifts. Most international adoptees’ origins are shrouded in anonymity. In order to succeed at finding a birth parent, they must enlist the help of a private investigator, a translator, and an international travel agent. Then, once they arrive, the language and cultural barriers are steep—intimacy is blocked until they have learned each other’s language. And by then the parent(s) may be elderly or dead.

I know this from firsthand experience. Not only was my sister a Korean adoptee, but for my entire childhood I only knew three facts about my own biological father. He was blond, had blue eyes, and a college degree. I was born when there was no internet. No DNA tests. To find him seemed impossible. And so I never entertained the idea that I’d be able to find or know him.

But then miracles happened. I received a one-page tear sheet with a few fill-in-the-blank answers that suddenly gave my anonymous sperm donor father a personality. He was Polish. He was a scuba-diving instructor. He studied respiratory medicine. The internet bloomed and sites like FTDNA and 23andMe emerged. Suddenly, it didn’t seem impossible that I might be able to find him.

And I’ve been searching for eight years, with the help of DNA tests and a private investigator. The man we suspect could be my father unfortunately died several years ago of lung cancer, right around the time when I started looking.

For caretakers who don’t wish their children to long for their genetic kin, stories like Trenka’s and mine are annoying. There are only two options from here. One, adoptive parents or those using sperm or egg donors must concede that genetic ties are important and find some way of cooperating with the child’s genetic parents—which can be messy and inconvenient for the caretakers. Or two, the caretaker can make it even more difficult for the child to find his genetic kin. The caretaker will reign supreme with a hermetic title as Mother or Father.

Distance or Dungeon. Or both.

Today, adults can separate children from their genetic kin not just by traveling geological distance, but by bending time and space. They can bring a child into the world who is wildly younger than his natural parents or siblings by cryogenically freezing them as embryos.

This happened recently in an “embryo adoption” case. A child was born after living as an embryo for 19 years in a freezer.

This 20-year-old infant, Liam James, has full genetic siblings who are now beginning adulthood. They were all created with eggs from an anonymous egg donor. Little Liam was first sold by his genetic mother, then separated from his siblings, put on ice, and “adopted” two decades later by a single-mom-by-choice who “couldn’t wait around anymore for someone to try with.” It’s impossible to say that the child’s best interests were seriously considered at any of the transactional stages before Liam’s birth.

This type of creation will become more popular if left unregulated. In the eyes of the caretaker, and the doctors, it is a cleaner arrangement. It’s hard work to cooperate with others (which is why marriage is so difficult and in decline). People don’t want to deal with the child’s other parent(s), strangers they don’t know and don’t care for. They want full control, full memetic immortality.

For doctors, embryo adoption is good business. You don’t have to feed embryos, or change their diapers, or oversee their education and development. You just put the microscopic inventory in a machine, and make sure the electric bill is paid and the nitrogen tanks are full. It’s easy to hyper-stimulate women during IVF and stash away an extra egg or two, paid for by the infertile patient—thereby increasing your stock, while minimizing effort and expense and maximizing profits.

The nitrogen dungeons we put embryos in are not like the dungeons of Ariel Castro or Josef Fritzl. They are not immediately painful forms of imprisonment that a born human with a fully developed brain and body parts could suffer from.

But this new form of human trafficking is nevertheless a threat to individual and societal wellbeing, just as displacement during slavery was harmful to African Americans, as Malcolm X and Alex Haley argued. It burdens the child just as anonymity hijacks the energy of donor-conceived offspring like me, Lindsay Greenawalt, Kathleen LaBounty, Olivia Pratten, Barry Stevens, Damian Adams, Joanna Rose, and Narelle Grech.

When baby Liam grows up and wants to know where he comes from and who his genetic parents and siblings are, he won’t just have an ocean to straddle, or a language to learn, he’ll have to grapple with time itself.

If we value human life, indiscriminate of age (and if you’ve experienced infertility and used IVF you most certainly understand the worth of an embryo) we are left with a true moral dilemma. Practically speaking, it is problematic, if not impossible, to find homes (not to mention wombs) for these hundreds of thousands of tiny beings. Once born, it’s reasonable to expect embryo adoptees to experience the same agony of identity loss as donor-conceived people and traditional adoptees. The unfortunate alternative is that if we fail to place them, the embryonic human being never develops. The problem, therefore, is that we have created frozen embryonic human beings in the first place.

The only solution, for this and so many other problems we see, is to reconnect sex and procreation.

Alana S. Newman is the founder of the Anonymous Us Project. Follow her work and blog at alananewman.com.

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