Many know Sofia Vergara as the quirky but loving Gloria Delgado-Pritchett from the ABC series “Modern Family.”
But perhaps not as many people are aware of her ongoing custody battle with former fiancé Nick Loeb. But this isn’t your typical custody battle — the now-split couple is fighting for rights to their two shared, frozen embryos.
In 2013, the couple created the embryos in order to have children through in-vitro fertilization and a surrogate. They signed a contract which said the embryos could be brought to term only with both parents’ consent, but the contract didn’t specify what would happen should the couple separate.
Last August, Loeb filed a complaint in Santa Monica over the embryos under a pseudonym, hoping the process would remain private. However, as the story recently broke in the media, Loeb took to the New York Times op-ed pages to argue that his two frozen children have a right to live.
Loeb wants custody of the embryos, while Vergara wants them to remain frozen indefinitely, which Loeb feels would be “tantamount to killing them.” Adding to the controversy is that Vergara recently announced she and recent boyfriend Joe Manganiello want to have kids.
The case has gotten so much attention not only because of the people involved, but because “embryonic custody disputes raise important questions about life, religion and parenthood,” Loeb wrote.
Beyond custody battles are a myriad of other moral and ethical issues that many parents don’t fully consider when creating embryos for IVF treatments.
The primary moral issue is the creation of embryos outside of the womb, ethicist Christopher Kaczor told The Tidings in an email interview. Kaczor is a William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University and is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“Every human embryo is a human being with intrinsic worth like all other human beings. To freeze a human being, and thereby risk their life, is to treat a human being like a mere thing, to use him or her as a means,” he said.
“People have good human desires to have children,” Kaczor continued. “This is wholesome and healthy. However, not every way of satisfying healthy and wholesome desires is good.”
Father Tadeusz “Tad” Pacholczyk, director of education for The National Catholic Bioethics Center, said while he understands the desire to implant these embryos, his concern is that this creates a false sense of demand for these extra embryos in the already over-stocked IVF clinics.
Many parents who find themselves with extra embryos end up paying a monthly bill, month after month and year after year, to keep replenishing their child’s supply of liquid nitrogen without any set plans for what to do in the future. Some argue that this is “extraordinary means” for sustaining human life, and therefore is not necessary. But for now, keeping these embryos frozen seems like the only morally acceptable option, Father Tad said.
“When we have children, we have a duty to clothe, feed, care for and educate them, all of which costs plenty of money. When our children are frozen, we don’t need to clothe, feed or educate them; our care for them can only be expressed by paying the bill each month to replenish the liquid nitrogen in their storage tanks,” Father Tad said.
“In my opinion, parents have an obligation to care for their children in this way until some other option becomes available in the future … or until there is a reasonable certainty that they have died on their own from decay or ‘freezer burn,’ which may occur whenever frozen embryos are stored for extended periods,” he added.
According to Father Tad, the most urgent issue in the United States is the general lack of regulation and oversight at a national level, which is leading to a great excess of frozen embryos.
“A much more urgent issue is how to stop the relentless manufacturing and freezing of new embryos, which is occurring each day, with clockwork-like regularity, in every major city in the United States,” he said.
Embyonic adoption is one potential solution. Advocates say it would give these otherwise abandoned embryos a chance at life. But Father Tad disagrees.
“IVF clinic operators would be able to placate themselves by saying, ‘We really don’t need to worry about producing extra embryos, because there will always be somebody willing to adopt any that are left over,’” Father Tad explained. “It could offer the clinics an excuse to continue and even expand their current immoral practices.”
Some countries in Europe — such as Germany and Italy — have already adopted much tighter regulations on the industry, including only allowing three embryos to be produced per treatment, all of which must be implanted in the mother. This leaves virtually no abandoned embryos on ice in massive storage units in these countries.
However, the best course of action would be for no embryos to be created outside the womb and for couples struggling with infertility to turn to a more natural method
“NaProTechnology enables many couples who thought they could never have children to achieve pregnancy in a way that is both ethically sound and practically feasible,” Kaczor said. “It is a healthy and good way to achieve pregnancy.”