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Story Publication logo October 23, 2019

When the Government Seizes Your Embryos


A woman walks in front of election posters in Warsaw. Image by Kacper Pempel. Poland, 2019.

In Poland, reproductive autonomy is under threat. Abortion is all but banned, and IVF is available...

Technician does control check of in vitro fertilization process using a microscope. Image by Shutterstock. Undated.
Technician does control check of in vitro fertilization process using a microscope. Image by Shutterstock. Undated.

In 2012, as she approached her thirty-eighth birthday, Irena, a single lawyer living in Warsaw, began researching fertility clinics with a friend. Neither woman had been having much luck dating—Irena blames her "feminist attitude," which is not widely shared in conservative Poland—but they didn't want to miss out on parenthood. Browsing the websites of the clinics, they noticed that almost all of them featured only photos of couples. Irena's friend phoned to confirm that they would treat single women, too.

Irena's first five artificial-insemination attempts failed, and so did her first attempt at in-vitro fertilization, in which eggs are retrieved from a patient's ovaries and fertilized before being transferred to the uterus. At the time, the Polish government was offering to reimburse heterosexual couples for their fertility treatments. The procedures were expensive, and Irena, being single, had to pay for them herself. Still, her second round of IVF, in the summer of 2015, looked promising. She got six quality embryos, froze four, and transferred the other two.

That summer, the laws covering fertility treatment in Poland were shifting. Informed by the Vatican's absolute opposition to IVF, the socially conservative Law and Justice Party, known by its Polish acronym, PiS, had put forward legislation that would ban IVF and criminalize its provision. PiS held a minority in Poland's parliament, but support for the party was growing. A revised version of the IVF bill, seen as a compromise between conservative, Church-backed parties and the governing centrist coalition, proposed to restrict fertility treatment to heterosexual couples who were married or living together. It would require clinics to get signatures from would-be mothers and fathers, who pledged to take legal and financial responsibility for any children they had as a result of the treatment, before IVF could take place.

That June, the compromise law passed. I live in a horrible, patriarchal, conservative country, Irena thought, when she heard about it. Luckily, her transfer had worked, and, in August—two months before the new law was to take effect—she learned that she was pregnant. Then, at ten weeks, she miscarried. The law was now in effect, and, as a single woman, she was blocked from accessing her own frozen embryos unless she could convince a male friend to sign with her. This would make him financially liable for her child and grant him custody rights. Moreover, another provision in the law, intended to insure that unused embryos wouldn't be destroyed, mandated that they be donated to an infertile heterosexual couple if they weren't used within twenty years. The four remaining frozen embryos, stored in a cryotank, were Irena's last chance at parenthood. There was now a real possibility that they'd be given to someone else.

Irena—who, like the other single women I interviewed for this story, requested that her name be changed to protect her identity—is a cheerful person, partial to loose, comfortable clothing and statement necklaces. Recounting her experience, at the dining table of my Warsaw Airbnb, she was indignant. "For me, it was something unimaginable to agree with this legal situation, that my embryos are waiting for me and I cannot have access to them," she said. "So I tried to think, what to do?"

For the past few decades, church attendance in Poland has been declining; still, eighty-six per cent of Polish citizens identify as Catholic. In 2008, the Vatican released the "Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," a document that updated its older guidance on reproductive technologies. The Instruction declared it "ethically unacceptable to dissociate procreation from the integrally personal context of the conjugal act." In another passage, IVF and abortion are linked as morally repellent expressions of a world view that reduces human life to a disposable commodity. "The desire for a child cannot justify the 'production' of offspring," the authors argue, "just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived."

Many Catholics object to the fact that embryos are routinely discarded during the IVF process: in explaining the opposition of Polish Catholics to IVF, Tymoteusz Zych, a legal scholar at the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture—a conservative, Warsaw-based think tank, which has advocated for a total ban on abortion—cited "the notion of human embryos as human beings." Zych also invoked the science-fiction film "Gattaca," from 1997, in which society is divided between those who can afford to genetically engineer their children and those who cannot. A common step in IVF treatment is pre-implantation genetic testing, in which embryos are screened for genetic defects. "This may lead to elimination from society of certain groups," Zych told me. "Human nature is not perfect; human nature is complex. And, as we deal with something as basic as the fertilization of human beings, we have to be extremely cautious."

And yet, in Poland, conservative opposition to IVF is not driven solely by religion. The first Polish IVF child was born in 1987, in the northeastern city of Bialystok; after the collapse of Communism, private fertility clinics proliferated. Some Church officials condemned them from the outset. But it wasn't until 2003, as Poland prepared to join the European Union, that politicians seized on IVF as a nationalist issue. Some borrowed language from the country's ongoing abortion debate, tying IVF to what they called the West's "civilization of death." Others connected it with Europe's cultural liberalism, against which they see Poland as a Christian bulwark. Around the world, reproductive technologies and their consequences have raised novel and complex questions about who or what counts as family, or even as a person. But in Poland these questions have become especially charged. As Magdalena Radkowska-Walkowicz, an anthropologist at the University of Warsaw, has written, the technology has become a screen onto which its opponents can project both new and time-honored fears.

Anti-IVF rhetoric takes a number of forms. Polish politicians and religious leaders have sometimes described IVF using nationalistic overtones that scholars have connected to a resurgent anti-Semitism. Catholic media routinely depict children conceived through IVF as unnatural and genetically suspect; in a survey of Polish articles about IVF children, Radkowska-Walkowicz found that they were often characterized as suffering from physical deformities, such as a protruding forehead or dangling tongue, or from mental illnesses, including "survivor syndrome" in relation to unused embryos. (There is no evidence for these claims.) These purported defects are said to go undetected—and so, Radkowska-Walkowicz writes, IVF children are imagined to lurk among the general population, their "biological otherness" polluting the Polish body politic.

Other IVF opponents position themselves as protectors of frozen embryos. In Poland, the political scientist Janine P. Holc writes, the embryo is sometimes seen as "the purest citizen"—an unformed innocent in need of protection by the Polish constitution. Anna Krawczak, a doctoral candidate at the University of Warsaw and the former chairperson of the patient-advocacy group Nasz Bocian (the name means "Our Stork"), which has fought for a more inclusive IVF law, told me that IVF opponents have found inventive ways of linking the procedure to abortion. Protesters gather in front of IVF clinics holding posters that show images of human fetuses, icy blue against a black background. Each fetus bears an imagined name: "Marysia—Frozen," "Marcin—Frozen," "Olek—Frozen," "Ola—Frozen." The last protester in line holds a color photo of a sleeping, cherubic baby boy: "Mateusz—He's the only one who made it . . . ." So intense is the debate around IVF, Krawczak told me, that "the frozen embryo is one of the main political actors in Poland."

"I believe in God, yes," Magda, a thirty-nine-year-old human-resources specialist living in Warsaw, told me, in May. "Maybe I'm not going to church as often as I would like." Magda is fairly typical of many Polish young people. Even as it remains connected to the Catholic Church, Poland is coming to resemble the rest of Europe culturally; it has a growing economy, and in its larger cities, such as Warsaw and Krakow, young Poles gather in cafés and bars and meet on Tinder. (Many also work for long stretches in other European countries.) Even to the devout, the alarmist rhetoric about IVF has not proved entirely persuasive. In 2015, a leading Polish polling group, the Public Opinion Research Center, found that seventy-six per cent of Poles supported IVF for married couples, and forty-four per cent supported it for single women.

Like Irena, Magda spent most of her twenties searching for the right partner. "My mom sometimes told me, 'You have too high standards,' " she recalled, laughing. "I said, 'Mom, I could walk on my standards.' " At thirty-four, prompted by the difficulty a younger, married friend encountered when trying to conceive, Magda went for a fertility checkup. She was alarmed to learn that she had the biological profile of a forty-year-old. At first, she thought of freezing her eggs. She learned, though, that she was likely to produce fewer of them than a younger woman would, and that eggs can be damaged in the freezing-and-thawing process. In the end, she decided to choose a sperm donor and create embryos, which have a better chance of surviving freezing and thawing, even though such a step precluded the possibility of using the sperm of an eventual boyfriend or husband. In February, 2015, Magda's doctor retrieved four eggs. Two were successfully fertilized. She envisioned telling her future partner about them: it was unfortunate, she'd say, that they couldn't conceive a child together, "but I have, in the refrigerator, a couple of babies."

After the retrieval, she and her doctor decided to freeze the embryos for a few months before transferring them, so that her body could recover from IVF's gruelling hormonal-stimulation regime. Magda was singularly focussed on having a baby; she wasn't paying close attention to the news, which was filled with debates on the IVF law. When her employer unexpectedly offered her a two-year contract in Krakow, Poland's charming second city, she figured that she could keep her embryos on ice until she returned to Warsaw, where her family lives. At the end of 2016, as she was moving back to Warsaw, Magda made an appointment at her clinic. In an examination room, her doctor said that he was no longer able to help her. By then, she'd begun following media coverage of the new law; she realized that, as a single woman, she could be denied fertility care. She had never considered, however, that she might be barred from accessing her already-created embryos, which had been made from her own genetic material at a time when it was completely legal to receive treatment. "Now I can't do anything," she said. Ruefully, she noted that, despite having no say over their future, she still bears financial responsibility for the embryos and pays annual "rent" to the clinic where they are stored.

The experience has sharpened Magda's political consciousness. Although she did not vote in the October, 2015 election, in which PiS won a majority in the Polish parliament—"I'm furious at myself for this," she said—she told me that she planned to drag everyone she knew to the polls for the next parliamentary election. (The 2019 election took place this October; PiS won another majority.) She lambasted the current government for its hypocrisy regarding family issues. In 2016, at the same time it was barring single women from using IVF, the PiS-led government began paying new parents a monthly child allowance of five hundred zloty per child (around a hundred and thirty dollars) in an effort to boost Poland's birth rate. "Everyone says, 'Yes, it's amazing to have babies. Make them! . . . Have five hundred zloty for a baby,' " Magda said. "O.K., so why can't I do it? I'm not a pathological liar. I'm not a psycho." Her voice rose. "I'm a normal, loving person who would like to have a family."

Scholars use the term "selective pronatalism" to describe the adoption of social policies that encourage childbearing for some groups while discouraging it for others. Some of the lawyers and doctors I spoke to believe that, although most media coverage of the IVF law focussed on how single women would be affected, its restrictions were actually designed with queer people in mind. Queer couples in Poland can neither marry nor form civil unions; if they have children while abroad, they must hire lawyers to request citizenship for those children, and it is granted only on a case-by-case basis. Under the banner of the five-hundred-zloty program, PiS has established itself as one of Europe's leading "pro-family" parties, inspiring similar programs in Serbia and Lithuania. In doing so, however, it has reinforced a narrow vision of what being "pro-family" means—one from which single and queer parents are excluded.

Maria, a thirty-eight-year-old designer living in Warsaw, always wanted a partner and family but never found the right person. Three years ago, she began surveying her options. She learned that, under the new law, it was impossible for her to receive fertility treatment in Poland; after several months of research and reflection, she decided to order sperm from Cryos, a Danish sperm bank, and attempt intracervical insemination (the so-called turkey-baster method) herself, at home. In an e-mail, she told me that she'd derived a sense of agency from undertaking the procedure herself. It was counterbalanced, though, by "feeling completely abandoned by your own country. . . . I realized one day that, despite being a good citizen, I don't deserve the same rights as the rest of the society, only because I'm not married or in a legal relationship." She added, "It pisses me [off] big time."

Maria and I met for dinner on a warm evening this spring. Wearing jeans and a marinière, with elegantly tousled dirty-blond hair, she was in good spirits, even though her first few attempts to get pregnant hadn't worked. She showed me photos of the canister in which the sperm samples had arrived, each in its own plastic straw; she planned to try six times, she said, after which she would travel to Denmark for IVF treatment. If she been able to buy sperm samples in Poland, they would have cost between four and six hundred zloty—around a hundred and thirty dollars—each. The samples she chose cost around thirteen hundred dollars each, including tax and shipping.

Maria told me about "I Won't Apologize for Giving Birth," a book on IVF families that was published, in 2015, by Karolina Domagalska, a Polish journalist. The title captured her attitude, she said: "I'm not going to be sorry. I'm not going to be apologizing to anybody for doing what I'm doing." It's ironic, she thinks, that Poland's nationalist government is compelling its women to conceive with foreign sperm. "You are sending a bunch of rich, loaded women—let's face it—to spend a hell of a lot of money outside the country, and to where? To Denmark, which is already rich," she said. "And we are saying, 'Oh, we are [such a] poor country, we want our Polish citizens to buy Polish products. Well, excuse me—I'm spending forty thousand zloty on Danish products, F.Y.I."

Shortly after PiS won its first parliamentary majority, in 2015, it packed Poland's constitutional tribunal, which rules on whether laws are compatible with the country's constitution, with conservative judges. In April of last year, the tribunal reviewed a case brought in October, 2015, by Adam Bodnar, Poland's ombudsman for human rights. Bodnar had requested that the tribunal clarify whether and how the IVF law would apply to single, female patients, such as Magda and Irena, who had begun treatment before its passage. The tribunal sidestepped the question of single women's access to IVF, arguing that it could rule only on the text of the law, not on its collateral effects. But it also cited Article 30 of Poland's constitution, which focusses on human rights and liberties. All of those liberties, the Tribunal argued, were based on the concept of human dignity; anything less than a family with both a mother and a father would deprive the embryo of the dignity to which, as a conceived child and a Polish citizen, it was entitled.

Sylwia Spurek, the former deputy ombudsperson for human rights, who worked on the constitutional tribunal case in her first weeks on the job, told me that the verdict, while disappointing, was legally sound. (The tribunal does not, in fact, have to rule on issues not explicitly addressed in the text of a law.) This leaves the affected women with little legal recourse. It was possible, Spurek said, that, if someone were to bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, the court might compel the Polish government to compensate some women for damages. But she did not believe that the European Court could force the government to permit women access to their embryos. Spurek is a longtime public servant, who has worked under six prime ministers. In her opinion, the current government is merely upholding a Polish political tradition of disregard for women. "I cannot see a huge difference, unfortunately," she said. "There was no government that was on the side of women, in the whole of my career."

To Irena, the law is an attempt by a patriarchal government to enforce a family structure that depends on men. Irena, who was raised by a single, divorced mother, can verify that families without men exist and thrive. Meanwhile, as a lawyer who specializes in family law, she sees many cases in which it seems to her that a child would be better off living with one parent than with two parents who "hate each other." In holding this view, she finds that she is in the minority, even among her educated, single friends. "A lot of women in Poland, even if they are single, they have this attitude that a child needs a father," she said. "I have a lot of friends who are single, and I know only one who thought the way I did."

In my Airbnb, over takeout sushi, Irena read over the tribunal's judgment. As she translated one conservative judge's opinion from Polish into English, she could barely contain her frustration. "As I can understand it, he says that, for this conceived child, who he considers a human being, it's better to stay for twenty years and after be adopted, not by his biological mother but by some other [couple], than to be born by his biological mother," she said, bitterly. "For me, it seems quite absurd."

Irena and the other women in her situation do have one way of getting around the IVF law: they can ask their clinics to ship their frozen eggs or embryos to clinics in other countries. Beginning in early 2016, Irena began trying to find a home for her embryos outside of Poland. First, she arranged to ship them to the Institut Marquès, a clinic in Barcelona. "Everything was going smoothly until we received the documentation from Poland that confirms the embryos were created with a non-anonymous sperm donor," a medical assistant wrote to Irena. "Unfortunately in Spain we are only allowed to do anonymous donation, and so if a donor is known, we cannot accept the embryos."

In April, she contacted the Copenhagen Fertility Center—perhaps, she thought, the staff there might feel a patriotic duty toward the Danish sperm she'd used—but she received only a succinct and unhelpful reply refusing her business. She began corresponding successfully with a clinic in Latvia when her mother fell gravely ill. To care for her, Irena put her fertility search on hold. The next year, she reached out to the Latvian clinic again, but they had trouble with her Polish clinic. "Good day, Now the rules is changes, and in this moment . . . we can't get from [your clinic] all necessary documents," someone named Katerina informed her, in March, 2017.

Irena discovered a branch of the Institut Marquès in Ireland, a country that permits non-anonymous gamete donation. (Although seventy-eight per cent of Irish citizens identify as Catholic, reproductive technologies are not as controversial there.) She arranged for her clinic to sign the necessary paperwork and booked her embryos' passage with a company called IVF Couriers ("Bespoke courier services for the next generation"). More than a year earlier, before she'd begun trying to ship her embryos abroad, Cryos, the Danish sperm bank, had notified her that, somewhere in the world, a child created with her donor's sperm had been born with a birth defect. Irena wasn't too worried—there was no way of knowing whether the defect was due to the sperm, the egg, or chance. But, just before her embryos were scheduled to ship, the board of the Institut Marquès in Barcelona checked with its Irish arm and found out about what they called her donor's "condition." The board decided to reject her embryos—a precaution, Irena assumed, meant to uphold their success rates, which potential clients use to evaluate clinics. Irena understood why an adverse birth outcome would preclude any future use of that donor's sperm. "But if these embryos already exist, and they are mine, then my idea is it is up to me . . . whether I want to take the risk and use them or not," she said. "I think this was the hardest moment."

Katarzyna Koziol, a doctor who co-founded one of Poland's largest IVF centers, in 1994, told me that, at her clinic alone, around a hundred women had been affected by the law; an analysis by Nasz Bocian, the patient-advocacy group, suggested that about five per cent of fertility-clinic patients in Poland were single women. (Koziol, who is the president of the Polish Society of Reproductive Medicine and Embryology, consulted on the IVF law, arguing that it should be more inclusive; the law's omission of single women, she said, was one of its "weak points.") After the law was passed, her staff received calls from many women asking what they should do. Often, the women opted to transfer their eggs or embryos to a clinic abroad. And yet every country's laws reflect different attitudes toward assisted reproductive technology, or art. Recently, in an article for Politico, Marion Sollety described how France's history of "resistance to health care as a business" has led that country to ban technologies such as elective egg-freezing, driving women who need them to Spain. (Amid protests from conservatives, President Emmanuel Macron's government is trying to liberalize French art regulation.) The sociologist Elzbieta Korolczuk points out that, in Poland, the law and rhetoric around art has had the effect of "nationalizing the embryos," so that, instead of being the private property of the person who commissioned their creation, they are "public citizen subjects," who are under the protection of the state.

Governments have an interest in protecting human life, especially when it's vulnerable; that's why they prohibit murder, tax cigarettes, mandate seat belts, and remove children from abusive homes. The Polish government has long maintained that its responsibility for protecting human life begins at conception. In the case of abortion, a government's desire to protect life at a prenatal stage must come at the expense of the rights of women who wish to end their pregnancies. But Poland's IVF law introduces a novel version of this trade-off, in which "protecting" embryos compromises the rights of the not-yet-pregnant women who've created them. The government must exercise something like eminent domain—over biological tissue, or property, or perhaps over a person.

A fertilized egg develops into an embryo after it's implanted in a uterus, where it can grow; after the eighth week, that embryo becomes a fetus. Technically, the frozen embryos stored by a fertility clinic are "pre-embryos," because they have not yet been implanted. According to European Union regulations, a pre-embryo is considered tissue: it must be handled, stored, and transported according to a 2004 directive that also addresses bone marrow for transplants and skin for grafts. But it's possible to ask whether a pre-embryo's genetic uniqueness, or its potential to grow into a human being, sets it apart from other tissues. There is no easy way to answer this question. Conception, artificial or otherwise, is so uncertain that each pre-embryo, once it's implanted, has only a one-in-three chance of growing into a human being. Meanwhile, despite this uncertainty, many resources—financial, biological, and emotional—have gone into its creation. Some pre-embryos are made entirely from a couple's genetic material; others include donor genes; some lack any genetic tie to their would-be parent or parents. Many aspects of an embryo's past, present, and future could bear on the question of who is responsible for its care and destiny.

It took two years, but Irena eventually managed to have her embryos exported to a clinic in Lviv, Ukraine. I asked her how often, and in what terms, she had thought about the embryos during that time. "It's related to your attitude to reproductive rights in general, so I don't think about them as babies, because I'm a feminist," she said. "I try not to humanize them, but of course I have a strong feeling that I am the person who's entitled to decide what to do with them." She paused. "I just don't accept this system, that there is somebody else who takes this decision instead of me. So let's say, I think we can use this word, 'property.' "

Ewa, a stylish, blond entertainment-industry professional, was almost a casualty of the 2015 law. Now forty-eight, she began fertility treatment in the spring of that year, when she was forty-four. Her first attempt at IVF yielded only one egg. She concluded that she didn't have time for what she called "expensive experiments." In June—the same month that the IVF law passed—she went to a clinic in the central city of Łódź. The doctor there told her that she had to act immediately, choosing both a sperm donor and an egg donor and completing IVF, before the law went into effect.

Ewa had already found a sperm donor she liked, from Cryos, the Danish sperm bank. On his profile, he explained that he'd decided to donate sperm after he and his partner became parents—he wanted others to be as happy as they were. "That was beautiful, the way he wrote it," she said. "It was funny. I fell in love with this donor." But the decision to move forward with donor eggs was more difficult. If it weren't for the law, she said, she would have tried once more with her own eggs.

Within a month, the clinic had located three potential egg donors. She chose one, who produced five high-quality eggs, all of which fertilized. On September 5th, less than a month before the law took effect, the clinic transferred two of the resulting embryos. Ewa worried about what would happen if neither embryo took. She is now the mother of twins.

Ewa is decidedly unattached to the embryos she left behind in the clinic. She hasn't received a storage bill for them since her treatment concluded, and hasn't called to find out what has happened to them. Since, by law, they can't be destroyed, she assumes that they are either still in storage or have been donated. She is excited about the latter prospect. "My kids are great," she said. She likes to think that there are, or will be, three more wonderful children out there who are related to her own. The law's imperative to donate unused embryos could, potentially, make her small family something larger. "One day, we're going to meet them, if they want to meet us," she told me.

Seen through a feminist, progressive lens, assisted reproductive technologies have emancipatory potential; they have the power to expand the definition of family, creating new familial configurations and notions of relatedness. Poland's IVF law, by contrast, suggests what can happen when such technologies take root in a society that's determined to remain traditional. Single motherhood is neither new nor radical; women have always raised children on their own, for any number of reasons (death, abandonment, divorce). The law, in attempting to preserve a narrow notion of what a family should be, has had the perverse effect of severing the mother-child bond. A government that confiscates a mother's embryos so that it can encourage only the "right" kinds of families creates its own kind of brave new world.

When Irena and I last corresponded, in September, she was twenty-eight weeks pregnant, following a successful embryo transfer in Lviv. She had notified her boss of her pregnancy, and he immediately congratulated her without asking any awkward questions; her mother is excited to become a grandmother. Paradoxically, she said, it was the law's fundamental injustice that steeled her resolve to keep going. "After this law was passed, all the doubts disappeared, and I felt very strongly convinced that I have to continue, and that I can't abandon my embryos," she told me. "We can say that this law helped me, but only in the sense of the state of my mind, and being confident that this is a good idea, and that I should keep trying."


Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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