Earlier this month, the world was shocked by a story about an Australian company that makes jewelry out of human embryos. The company, Baby Bee Hummingbirds, caters to people who have leftover frozen embryos from the in vitro fertilization process. The “straws” in which the embryos are stored are cremated and turned into pendants. Company founder Amy McGlade believes Baby Bee Hummingbirds is pioneering a “sacred art” that gives families with extra embryos another option besides storage, donation, or destruction.
The original article told the story of a couple with seven remaining embryos who took advantage of this new option. Their embryos were cremated and put into a heart-shaped pendant worn by the mother, Belinda Stafford. “Now they are forever with me in a beautiful keepsake,” Stafford said, adding that she finally felt comfort, joy, and peace.
While it seems embryo jewelry resolved a difficult situation for the Staffords, nothing could be further from the truth. The embryo jewelry concept provides false comfort through deception and denial. First, the whole process appears to be a hoax. I’m a reproductive endocrinologist who has personally performed more than 1,000 frozen embryo transfers. Frozen human embryos are delicate and microscopically small. When the straws storing them are cremated, the embryos themselves would essentially be vaporized.
What remains in the “embryo ash” turned into jewelry, then, aren’t the embryos, but burnt remnants of the device in which they were stored. Baby Bee Hummingbirds could take a coffee straw from a fast food restaurant, burn it, put it into jewelry, and produce substantially the same product. Though a simple DNA test on the ashes could prove the legitimacy of the company’s claims, it hasn’t made the results of such tests available to the public.
“Embryo jewelry” appears to be fraudulent, but regardless of the content of the pendants, the company is perpetrating an even bigger fraud: the idea that the creation of such jewelry is not identical to embryo destruction. The Staffords said they didn’t have the heart to destroy their remaining embryos, but they turned them over to Baby Bee to do exactly that.
My point isn’t to condemn the Staffords. They found themselves, perhaps unwittingly, in a difficult and emotionally charged situation. Disposing of remaining embryos is a matter of great angst, and couples facing this decision deserve to be treated with compassion. The tragedy is that the Staffords were deceived into believing embryo jewelry isn’t embryo destruction. Stafford herself called the embryos “her babies” and mistakenly believed that she was somehow preserving them by turning them into jewelry. How alarming to see the horror of death so easily spun into a symbol of comfort and joy.
The truly life-affirming solution would have been for the Staffords to donate their remaining embryos to another couple waiting to welcome children into their home. The article said donation wasn’t an option for the Staffords, but it’s unclear if they were unable to donate or whether donation was an option they had personally ruled out.
The organization I help lead, the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), would have been glad to accept the Staffords’ seven remaining embryos. We take embryos free of charge from donors all over the United States and from some foreign countries as well, including Australia. How I wish this couple would have chosen life for their embryos and turned to us instead of Baby Bee.
Embryo donation isn’t an easy step for couples to take, but it’s the only life-honoring one.
The Staffords aren’t the only couple to face this dilemma. In the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of these embryonic lives are frozen in time. At the NEDC, we’ve had the privilege of helping thousands of lives out of the freezer. About 650 of those have come to birth and been ushered into the arms of caring mothers and fathers.
Embryo donation isn’t an easy step for couples to take, but it’s the only life-honoring one. Naturally, the thought of turning one’s genetic children over to another family can be jarring. The key, however, is to consider the best interest of the embryos that have been created. Don’t they deserve a chance at birth and a full life?
At the NEDC we do all we can to ensure their placement into stable, loving homes—in some ways mimicking the traditional adoption process. Donors can have open or anonymous relationships with the adopting couples, most of whom have spent years battling infertility. The ability to help another couple build the family they’ve always dreamed of is another beautiful dimension of embryo donation. Perhaps the Staffords would have received far greater comfort in having a relationship with the birth family of their donated embryos and seeing them experience the joy of growing up in a loving family.
While it was heartening to see widespread outrage at the concept of so-called embryo jewelry, increasing awareness of and participation in embryo donation and adoption would be even more encouraging and constructive.