Embryo Mix-ups and Barcodes


Bar codes show up in all sorts of places. I used a barcode to create a boarding pass. A Boston chef announced his creation of an edible barcode. But what about a human barcode? Researchers at the University of Barcelona have developed microscopic barcodes to identify embryos created by in vitro fertilization.[1] Embryo mix-ups do happen. You may have seen a recent Today Show segment featuring the Savages. This couple found out they were pregnant after IVF, but with another couple’s child.[2] The “wrong” embryo was transferred. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the ending is not always happy for the embryo. Some couples abort rather than bear someone else’s child. Carolyn Savage continued the pregnancy, gave birth to baby Logan, and handed him over to his genetic parents.

Technology seems to have come up with a solution. A silicon barcode is applied just inside the membrane of the egg after harvesting, but before fertilization. Fertility doctors and technicians could then scan the barcode to identify and keep track of newly created embryos. These barcodes are being tested in mice, with the goal of using them in human embryos.

This proposal is an ethical problem. It’s one more consequence of treating the results of IVF as products, not children. An embryo is not something you retrieve from the grocery store shelf and scan at check-out. But the technology of IVF tends to de-humanize the embryo as a commodity.

This isn’t necessarily intentional. But the language we use can disguise the true nature of these tiny human beings. Scientific terms such as “zygote” and “embryo” can be twisted to imply that we are talking about something less than a fully human being. Cultural terms that describe embryos as “Grade A,” “blasts” or “pre-embryos” minimize their true value and importance. You will not find these terms in any credible embryology textbook.

We need to pay close attention to novel technology that manipulates the embryo. Any mistakes in applying the silicon barcode or the failure of the barcode to fully separate before implantation pose serious risks to the embryo. Technology-induced harm would be a devastating outcome for fertility patients. IVF babies already face an elevated risk for certain genetic and developmental defects; why would we subject them to additional harm?

The embryo barcode works by tracking the egg. What about sperm mix-ups, which have happened more often? Will we pursue a technological fix for sperm as well?

Meanwhile, the couple I described who went through the grief of carrying someone else’s child is now expecting twins. Guess what? They are using a surrogate; another woman is carrying their children.[3] The complications and emotional confusion of IVF is something a barcode cannot prevent and technology cannot fix. It’s time to stop and consider God’s wisdom before we proceed any further. . . . For the sake of all our children.

[1] Cian O'Luanaigh, “Fertilised Eggs Get Microscopic Bar Codes,” New Scientist, November 23, 2010, http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2010/11/theres-something-in-my-eggs.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=online-news (accessed June 6, 2011).

[2] Mike Celizic, “Embryo mix-up baby ‘loved by two families,” Today Health, June 1, 2011, http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/36935933 (accessed June 6, 2011).

[3] Susan Donaldson James, “Carolyn and Sean Savage Expecting Twins With Surrogate; Relief After 2009 Embryo Mix-Up,” abcnews, April 7, 2011. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/carolyn-sean-savage-embryo-mix-now-expect-twins/story?id=13318708 (accessed Jun 13, 2011).


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