Five metallic containers are lined up in a corner of the Malpani Infertility Clinic in Colaba.
Lift the lid and fumes of liquid nitrogen (minus 196 degrees) gush out.
Inside, there are countless coloured and coded straw-thin tubes, each containing four to six embryos belonging to one donor couple (see box).
In all, the clinic has more than 1,000 embryos or potential babies.
When a couple approaches the clinic, the doctors just thaw the embryos and implant them in the woman’s uterus.
Though the technique has been around for 20 years, it has become more successful in recent times thanks to advances in freezing technology such as vitrification, which involves freezing the embryo about 600 times faster than before.
“Till a few years back just 30 to 40 per cent of frozen embryos used to survive. Now, 70 per cent of the embryos survive,” said infertility specialist Dr Anjali Malpani.
“In the last few months I have also noticed that the transfer of frozen embryos leads to
successful pregnancies more often than fresh embryos,” she added.
Indian clinics can store embryos for as long as they wish as there is no cap on the number of years for which they can be frozen. But if the draft Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) Bill, 2010, is enacted, clinics will be able to keep embryos for a maximum period of five years, after which they will have to be discarded or donated for research.
In UK, embryos can be frozen for up to 10 years.
The ethical debate
The practice of embryo freezing has not raised many eyebrows in India, but it has led to heated debates in Western countries. Certain groups have called for a ban on freezing on grounds that it is unethical to “suspend” or destroy an embryo because it contains potential human life.
Dr Nicholas Antao from the Catholic Medical Association’s Bio-medical Ethics Centre in Mumbai does not subscribe to this method of family-building.
“On one hand couples are trying so hard to have babies through IVF and on the other they are themselves disposing off the extra embryos or freezing them. This is disrespecting the embryos. One should adopt an orphan instead,” he said.
Doctors, however, say the arguments are similar to those against abortion.
“Embryo transfer is just like adoption, expect that it is not a baby. There is nothing wrong with donating spare embryos so another couple can have a child,” said senior gynaecologist Dr Duru Shah.
Wanted fair embryos
When couples go for embryo adoption, they often ask for embryos whose donor parents are “good-looking, tall and well-educated”. Like adoption agencies, doctors try to match characteristics like complexion and height so the baby looks like the couple’s own. So, what if a couple specifically asks for a fair baby?
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. It is their call,” said Dr Hrishikesh Pai. Dr Malpani agreed. “But if a very dark couple asks for a fair baby I would counsel them against it. And, we don’t reveal the donor’s identity and religion under any circumstances,” she said.