Heterologous Embryo Transfer (HET): A New Frontier in Parenting

Heterologous Embryo Transfer (HET) is the transfer of a genetically unrelated embryo into the uterus of a woman. In its most basic form it raises few eyebrows, as surrogacy is relatively common practice. However, the introduction of the phenomenon of embryo adoption has complicated HET.
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Heterologous Embryo Transfer (HET) is the transfer of a genetically unrelated embryo into the uterus of a woman. In its most basic form it raises few eyebrows, as surrogacy is relatively common practice. However, the introduction of the phenomenon of embryo adoption has complicated HET, a technology that has been in existence since 1983, to new levels that rival the plotlines of the most cutting edge science fiction novels.

Imagine this scenario: A heterosexual couple wants to have a child, but the woman cannot conceive, or can conceive but is unable to carry the fetus to term. Desperate for a child the couple seeks out assisted reproductive technology (ART). The man's sperm and the woman's ovum are harvested and fertilized in a laboratory to create two embryos. The physicians and fertility specialists perform Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) on the two embryos to determine which one is more viable or shows genetic traits that the parents consider preferable. The more desirable embryo is implanted, the woman becomes pregnant and the couple is blessed with a child. The couple is satisfied with their one child and so they choose not to pursue a second round of in vitro fertilization (IVF) with the surplus embryo they created. Time passes and the fertility clinic where the couple's less desirable surplus embryo has been frozen in liquid nitrogen is closing. The couple is contacted by the fertility clinic and given four options as to what they can do with their excess embryo: 1) they can have it implanted in the woman and attempt to have a second biological child, 2) they can have the embryo destroyed, 3) they can donate the embryo to science for stem cell research, or 4) they can place the embryo up for adoption.

The couple has already decided that they only want one child and rule out a second pregnancy as an option. Because they believe that life begins at conception, at the moment an embryo is created, the idea of destroying "life", is contradictory to their religious beliefs and so they decide against it. Donating the embryo to science is at first appealing to the couple but upon learning of the legal regulations placed on the use of embryos in stem cell research in this country they chose not to pursue that avenue, further, the embryo would be destroyed if used for scientific research which contradicts their religious beliefs and defaults them back to the position they took for the second option. Ultimately they decide to give their surplus embryo up for adoption.

An adoption agency enters the picture at this point, taking custody of the frozen embryo. The adoption agency begins interviewing potential parents for this embryo. A second heterosexual couple approaches the adoption agency wanting to adopt the embryo that the first couple gave up for adoption. The woman in the second couple wishes to be implanted with the surplus embryo of the first couple and the man pledges to support the woman, his partner, during the pregnancy and assuming the embryo successfully develops into an infant he pledges to raise the infant as his own adopted child. However, it is discovered that the woman in the adoptive couple has a medical condition that precludes her from carrying a fetus to full term. The couple still wishes to proceed with the adoption so they hire a woman to serve as their surrogate.

A third couple is introduced to the scenario, with the women in the third couple agreeing to serve as the surrogate in exchange for a cash payment. The women in the third couple is implanted with the surplus embryo created by genetic material of the first couple and is being financially supported by the second couple. The man and woman in the third couple experience the nine months of development of the embryo inside the woman's womb. The man feels the fetus kick as he cares for his partner who is the surrogate and they both find they are developing an emotional connection to the fetus.

When the surplus embryo turned fetus is finally delivered and a baby boy is born, he is born into a world with three sets of parents. The first couple are his genetic parents, without whose DNA he could not exist, and whose physical traits he will exhibit. The second couple are his adoptive parents, who played just as great of a role in making his existence possible as his genetic parents in that their financial support and commitment to see his development from embryo to full human being has made his birth possible. Finally, the third couple are his surrogate parents, without whose physical presence, particularly the woman's womb, he would not exist beyond the embryo form. So while there are arguably three sets of parents there is yet a fourth party integral to this process. It was the embryo adoption agency that facilitated the transfer of the frozen embryo from cryobank to womb.

Now a beautiful baby boy is born, however he has a few health problems, such as poor vision, an enlarged heart and a metabolic disorder. The adoptive parents love their new baby, however they are dismayed at his health problems and question whether or not their new son's health problems are the result of genetic abnormalities, misconduct on the part of the surrogate parents, or the fact that their new son existed in embryo form, encased in liquid nitrogen in suspended animation for over a decade, before being implanted into the surrogate mother.

Facing a litany of medical procedures for their new adopted son the adoptive parents track down the genetic parents. Upon learning that their surplus embryo, is now their biological son and he being raised by another couple, they are so emotionally moved that they pursue legal action and sue for custody of their genetic child. The adoptive parents have no intention of relinquishing custody of their adopted child. To further complicate matters the surrogate parents have an emotional attachment and the woman has a biological attachment to the child and enter the custody battle to become the legal parents of what the woman claims is her biological albeit not genetic child.

Given the scenario just outlined, how would the legal system or the religious community ever begin to sort this matter out? There are no court cases documented in the United States in which a scenario like this has taken place, however, there is no legislation currently in place that would prevent such a hypothetical scenario from becoming reality. The scientific technology currently exists that would make the birth of a child with three sets of parents with legal claim to him or her completely possible. Further, embryo adoption is not the stuff of science fiction novels. Embryo adoption is a thriving industry.

Bringing a child into the world by traditional means is a process fraught with moral, ethical and emotional complications. Bringing a child into the world by non-traditional means, such as heterologous embryo transfer (HET) increases the complications exponentially, begging questions such as what defines a parent (genes, love, pregnancy and delivery, etc...) and who does the child belong to? But does an increase in complications translate into the process being morally or ethically wrong? Bringing a child into the world and raising it to adulthood has never been an easy exercise but the human race has not ceased to procreate simply because the process is too difficult. In fact, as the ethical ante has been raised it seems more people are having children through more scientifically diverse ways. Getting past the fact that there will inevitably be emotional and legal conflicts between the multiple forms of parents created in the process of heterologous embryo transfer a larger question looms: is it ethical, both legally and theologically, to bring life into the world outside the normative standards of the ages?