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BIOHAZARDS by Paige Comstock Cunningham

Baby Barcodes

On Tracking Eggs & Embryos

by Paige Comstock Cunningham

Barcodes now show up everywhere, including on your smart phone as a boarding pass. In Germany, eggs are individually barcoded, prompting one company to create an app so that shoppers could scan and select the best eggs.1 The latest use for barcodes? To “unscramble” human eggs intended for use in IVF (in vitro fertilization).

Embryo mix-ups do happen. Shannon and Paul Morrell were featured on the Today Show with their son Logan, who was created via IVF using Shannon’s and Paul’s egg and sperm. But the embryo was mistakenly transferred to the womb of Carolyn Savage.2 Rather than opting for abortion, Carolyn continued the pregnancy and gave birth to Logan, who was then handed over to the Morrells.

Can technology come up with a solution to such mix-ups? Researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona have developed microscopic silicon barcodes that can be applied just inside the membrane of an egg after harvesting, but before fertilization.3 These barcodes could then be used to identify and keep track of newly created embryos. Currently, they are being tested in mice, with the goal of eventually using them in human embryos.

Is there a problem here? Or is this just a matter of developing technology to minimize human errors, similar to changing packaging to avoid pharmaceutical mix-ups?

The language and processes of assisted reproduction tend to commodify children like manufactured products. An embryo is not something you retrieve from the grocery store shelf and scan at checkout. Yet both the language and the techniques of IVF evoke the “production” embedded in “assisted reproduction,” rather than the “creation” that is at the root of “procreation.” Cultural terms that describe embryos as “Grade A,” “blasts,” or “pre-embryos” further minimize their true value and importance. (You will not find these terms in any credible embryology textbook.)

The Barcelona experiments also raise the risk of harm to the embryo from, for example, a mistake in applying the silicon barcode or inability of the embryo to shed the barcode. Technology-induced harm would be a devastating outcome for fertility patients, and even more so for the embryos exposed to such unnecessary harm. IVF babies already face an elevated risk for certain genetic and developmental defects;4 why would we subject them to more?

And while the barcode technology may address the problem of tracking eggs, it does not address the issue of sperm mix-ups, which occur more frequently. Corporate risk managers could demand a tracking system for sperm. This is not a fanciful scenario, as evidenced by the tangle of legal cases already brought on behalf of children created with the “wrong” sperm.

In Singapore, one man’s sperm was mistakenly used in another couple’s IVF procedure. How to resolve the unintended genetic father’s legal relationship to the resulting offspring was “unclear.”5 In the UK, parents of a child born with darker skin than theirs sued for damages and lost. The clinic had mistakenly used sperm from a donor who belonged to a mixed-race community in South Africa.6 In the U.S., a Hispanic woman and her Caucasian husband also sued when they discovered their child was much darker than they expected. Their clinic had erroneously used sperm from an African-American male. This couple won.7

These situations illustrate an aspect of assisted reproduction that does not occur when babies are made “the traditional way.” IVF’s language, techniques, and technological fixes make it increasingly easy to regard children created this way as products that must pass inspection, rather than as unique human persons. Is this a moral tangle we can unscramble? 

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