One woman's heart-rending dilemma to keep or destroy embryos after divorce.

In comparison to the heartbreaking aftermath of Sally Faulkner’s separation from her husband, my divorce was a veritable swimming pool filled with chilled champagne on a hot summer’s day. Knowing I had to leave, I walked out the door with my son. My ex allowed that to happen. In the divorce application, my ex, being a solicitor, drew it up himself. I was given full custody of our two year old son, with no defined visitation rights for his father. There was not even a discussion about it.

Another thing we didn’t discuss was what to do with our son’s four “siblings”, who were chilling – literally – in the embryo freezer of the IVF clinic where he had been conceived. I’d read that some couples argue about what to do with embryos after a divorce, but apart from it not even occurring to my ex, it was never an issue to me. I figured there was no point in bringing a child into a family when there was barely a relationship between the father and the existing child.

In any case, at age thirty-two, I felt I still had so much time ahead of me – and hoped that that one day I would be able to fill my massive seven-seat SUV, as I had intended to when I bought it merely months earlier. The potential of this dream was confirmed by my reproductive doctor, who assured me that I would not have any conception issues with a new partner. The doctor also informed me that the clinic’s policy was to not permit a separated or divorced couple to use their embryos – meaning that had I wanted to, I would have had to fight them in court about it.

But as I explained, given our situation, I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. So I got into that seven-seat SUV with its one Turn-a- Tot car seat installed in the middle, and drove home, feeling like the richest woman in the world, with one miracle baby and hope for more in the future.

And then, two things changed my calm acceptance of the situation. The first was a letter from the IVF clinic informing me that I had four options;

  1. Continue to pay a yearly $1200 storage fee to keep the embryos. (no – since I wasn’t planning to use them anyway.)
  2. Donate the embryos to a couple who can’t have their own babies (no – for deeply personal reasons due to my own experience of adopted children.)
  3. Donate the embryos to science.
  4. Have the embryos destroyed.

Donating the embryos to medical research, to help other people needing IVF, seemed like the best choice. That is, until I read the caveat; the clinic could keep the embryos for years, and I could one day out of the blue be contacted to ask if they could be used on a project, or whether I had changed my mind.

How IVF works, in 3D. Post continues below…

Video by The Visual MD

Needing to further examine the options, I turned to a close friend, whose only response was “Don’t you want to give your son a full biological sibling?”

That question is the second thing that messed with my initial resolve. I had not even thought about it that way. To me, a sibling is a sibling, whether they are technically full or half. I told my friend that I firmly believed that family is not always dictated by blood, and it is what you make it.


But a seed of doubt had been planted in my mind. I felt sure at the time, but what if I felt differently later? What if I did not go on to have more children with another partner? Was I selfishly denying my son the chance to have brothers or sisters when the opportunity was there now? Wasn’t it a natural feeling for many people to want more than one child so that the kids have someone to grow up with? Was I wasting the chance to give him that?

The deciding factor for me was the growing fear that one day, if I was contacted by the clinic about the embryos being used for a project, and if things had not turned out as I hoped in terms of more kids with another partner…would I be tempted to fight for those embryos? Did those embryos deserve to be ‘back ups’? And who knew what the state of my relationship with my ex would be at that time. I considered all of these factors for months. Eventually, I decided that the uncertainty that came with the possibility of being randomly contacted one day was too much of a risk for everyone involved; it was a potential minefield.

Image source: iStock

And so, the embryos were “destroyed”. Signing the form was very sad. I know there are much, much worse things to endure; I didn’t have a miscarriage, or a stillbirth, and I didn’t lose a child from illness or accident. They were embryos, not living human beings. There had been no guarantee they would even be viable and result in successful pregnancies. But the word “destroyed” destroyed me for a while. It was so final. And fate didn’t make the decision – I did.

I recalled how excited I was when we were told after years of treatment that I finally had five ‘healthy’ embryos ready to go whenever I was – and here I was, a few years later, making a conscious decision to destroy four of them. Five years later, on a rational level, I stand by my thought process. But despite having a wonderful, rich and peaceful life with my gorgeous son, doubt still occasionally creeps in. Last year, when I traded the seven-seat SUV for something half its size, I did look at those rarely used seats and wonder what could have been.