Let me start off by saying that I have always been pro-choice and support laws that allow people to have full reproductive rights, including safe and legal abortions. But it’s also a complicated subject and not one that I ever thought I would have to deal with on a personal level—especially as a gay man.
I remember a very heated discussion on abortion in my biology class back in university with a female classmate who was anti-abortion. She thought there was no justification for abortion ever, not even for women who were raped by parents or siblings. I couldn’t understand her position, both then (as an idealistic young man) and now (as an older and wiser parent).
It turns out that men sometimes have a say on abortion—and I don’t mean the male lawmakers who try to take women’s rights away. When my husband and I decided to have a child through surrogacy six years ago, abortion was an issue we had to think about. When finding a surrogate to work with, it’s important to find someone who shares similar beliefs and values. You need to think about what would happen if you discover abnormalities with your embryo or if the embryos split. Would you want your surrogate to have an abortion or use selective reduction, which means reducing the number of fetuses in a multiple pregnancy? These are real discussions that you need to have prior to signing surrogacy contracts. Everyone has different beliefs, but these are important issues that need to be dealt with early on. At the end of the day, you can talk about all of this in theory, but going into surrogacy, my husband and I knew that it was always the surrogate’s decision—it was her body after all. We couldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to do.
A 2013 surrogacy case in California demonstrates this. Andrea Ott-Dahl was a surrogate for friends of hers who were unable to conceive themselves. During the six-week check-up, they found out that the baby had Down syndrome and might not survive to birth. After hearing news of the diagnosis, the baby’s intended mothers decided that they no longer wanted the surrogate to move forward with the pregnancy. But Ott-Dahl refused to abort and decided to keep the baby herself.
In our case, we had discussed a possible termination with our surrogate in certain situations, but thankfully we never had to act on it or discuss it ever again. We were blessed with a healthy baby boy five years ago.
So, why so much talk about abortion, you ask? We have decided not to have any more children—we are “one and done,” as they say. But here is our dilemma: We are left with nine embryos and don’t know what to do with them. We have been paying $500 a year to keep them frozen since they were created six years ago. Every year, when we get the bill, my husband and I have the same discussion: Do we keep paying to store the embryos, donate them to another couple, give them to science or destroy them? We have contemplated all of these choices, but we just end up paying the money and waiting another year.
I love the idea of donating the embryos, but it’s a very difficult decision. I’ve talked to a few couples who need help with assisted reproduction and are looking for embryos, but I can’t go through with it. These couples don’t live close by, and they are perfect strangers. Recently, it’s been brought to our attention that there is a Facebook group for LGBTQ couples who are looking for donated embryos with an open adoption relationship. But I think if we were to donate them, it would have to be to a couple we know and with whom we have a greater connection. The question then becomes how much of a relationship would we want with them? Would we co-parent on some level? Would we discuss parenting styles? There are so many questions and unknowns.
The other option of donating the embryos to medical research isn’t something we have discussed in depth. I like the idea of helping with the advancement of fertility options and stem-cell research, but I’m just not sure it’s the right option for us. I also wonder if we should be keeping these embryos for our son in case of any unforeseen health issues.
Chances are, if we can’t find someone we know to donate the embryos to, we will have to make the decision to destroy them at some point. This is where the discussion of abortion all of a sudden becomes very real to me. I’ve really had to think about how I feel about embryos and whether they are just a bunch of cells or my son’s brothers and sisters. A recent bill, proposed by anti-abortion lawmakers in Pennsylvania, would require burials and death certificates for “fetal remains,” which, in their terms, includes any fertilized eggs that never implanted in a uterus.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to decide to abort a fetus. I completely respect women’s right to do so, and I expect others to respect my perspective on embryos as well. It is such a personal decision. I have a friend who had an abortion when she got pregnant by her “holiday boyfriend” in her early 20s. She was in school, single and not ready for a baby. Her family pressured her to terminate the pregnancy, and she decided that was the best decision at the time. She has told me that there is not a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about that difficult decision she made. She is happily married now, with a beautiful family, but that event was one of the biggest sorrows in her life. I worry that it might be one of mine as well, which is why we keep paying for our embryos to remain frozen.
We almost lost that choice recently. In 2018, the clinic that was storing our embryos had a failure in one of its freezers. The temperature went too high and at least 47 people lost their frozen eggs, sperm and embryos. We were lucky to find out that we were not one of those affected, but I sometimes think that it would have made the decision easier for us, as awful as that sounds.
I am currently a board member for a non-profit organization that helps gay men have babies through surrogacy. Through our conferences around the world, we discuss everything related to surrogacy. Termination comes up when we discuss “questions to ask your surrogate,” but we never discuss what people do with their unused embryos. I was hoping that this essay might open up the conversation.
We would love to hear from other people about what they are doing with their unused embryos. It might help us all make more informed decisions.
Frankie Nelson is a teacher, writer and advocate for surrogacy for same-sex couples based in Toronto. This essay was originally published on the site Family Is About Love, where Frankie and his husband, BJ Barone, chronicle life with their son, Milo.