Monday, May 28, 2007


Once I met someone who told me her mother went to school with Elvis and they had a flirtation. The family story was that if things had gone a bit differently, "Elvis would have been my dad!" There are stories like these in most families. The other day, my father said to me, "If your mother hadn't had that miscarriage you would have an older brother."

What we all know is that if there were different circumstances, we would not be here at all. If my parents had a child before me they might have decided not to have any more children. The timing would not have been exactly the same regardless, and a different egg and different sperm would have united to make a different person. I would simply not exist.

But it's certainly true that in slightly different circumstances our families would all be configured differently. Jenny and Erin, my embryo recipients, found by chance. They decided to look for donors despite their concerns that no one would be looking for a lesbian couple like them. Finding us and having the faith in themselves to be open and honest with us led to our donation of three embryos to them. With a 1 in 3 chance of success per embryo, we hope and believe that our donation will result in at least one baby for them to love.

As we waited to discover if their dream would come true in the weeks after their transfer of one of those embryos, I had a sudden realization that took me aback.

Their child could have been one of our children. Not in the sense that we wanted another child. Two was the right number for us, and we had achieved our goal. We do not want any more children, which is why we donated the embryos to this lesbian couple who, we knew, would face nothing but discrimination if they tried to adopt a child.

What I mean by "their child could have been one of ours" is this: the reason we have our daughter is that the embryologist randomly selected two fertilized eggs AT CONCEPTION and froze the remaining three. There was no attempt to pick the "best" embryos because they were all just two-celled fertile eggs at that point, too small to grade for quality.

When the embryologist met with us to confirm that we wanted two embryos fresh and three frozen, I told her "pick a girl". We already had a boy and wanted our last child to be of a different gender for the sake of variety. Of course I was joking -- the embryologist who can look at a two-celled pre-embryo and successfully "pick a girl" would be a very wealthy embryologist. But she had. She could just as easily have selected any of the other embryos, and that might be our child instead.

Why did the embryologist choose the egg that became our daughter, and that second embryo which didn't implant? Maybe the embryo that stood out was the one in the middle. Perhaps she is left handed and that embryo was closest to her dominant hand. However she decided to use the two embryos she chose and not one of the other three, this was truly random luck.

This is not a case of "Elvis could have been my father". There were five existing embryos, each a potential child. We got two of them and the recipients got three.

If our recipients get one of those embryos to implant and grow into a baby, that child could just as easily have been picked for us by the embryologist. S/he could even have been our daughter's twin, if both embryos had implanted instead of just one. This was not an outcome we desired, since we only wanted two children and already had one. But it is an outcome which could have happened just as easily as what did happen.

The recipients may not even get a child from our embryos. The odds are in their favor, but the interplay between embryo and womb that leads to pregnancy is the least-understood and hardest to control part of the entire IVF process.

But while we waited to find out if our embryos' intended parents would become actual moms, what could have been was as interesting as what might be.