Baby Liam Burke is just learning to crawl. But he was conceived when Bill Clinton was president, the World Trade Center stood tall and home computers had the new-found ability to dial into something called the World Wide Web.
Suspended 19 years in deep-freeze, Liam is the beloved new son of Kelly Burke -- and one of the oldest embryos ever thawed and restored to life.
"He is the most awesome baby there is," said Burke, 45. "He is a happy, healthy baby, a little bundle of joy, smart and interactive."
What's more intriguing, Liam is adopted. An Oregon couple who had twins two decades ago through San Ramon's Fertility Sciences Center kept his embryo frozen for years, keeping open the option of expanding their own family. Ultimately, they decided to donate the embryo to Burke for her own pregnancy -- a profound example of technology's extension of life.
Like Liam, about 10,000 embryos a year are thawed and join families, thanks to advances in the field of cryopreservation. Others linger, sometimes for a decade or more, raising medical and ethical dilemmas never imaginable a generation ago.
Infertile couples create embryos using in-vitro fertilization, which joins eggs and sperm in a petri dish. They typically create as many as possible to maximize their chances for parenting -- but if the first attempt results in a baby, other embryos are left over.
In 1985, there were 285 frozen embryos in the entire nation. Now an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 human embryos live as souls on ice, carefully held in liquid nitrogen tanks.
Of these, about half will eventually be implanted into their mothers, according to ReproTech, a company that specializes in long-term storage of embryos. Most of the rest are discarded or donated to research. A lucky few -- 1.5 per cent -- are, like Liam, gifted to women like Burke.
Embryo abandonment is a problem every clinic faces. As long as the freezer bill is paid, the embryo is safe -- for years, decades, maybe generations.
That growing longevity on ice raises an ethical issue. "Imagine in 1,000 years someone doing IVF with a long-frozen embryo just to see what a 21st-century -- or, in this case, 20th-century -- human being was like," said Hank Greely, director of Stanford University's Center for Law and the Biosciences. "Just keeping them frozen -- kicking the can down the road a little farther -- seems wrong to me. Use them, destroy them, donate them for research, or donate them for adoption. But make a decision. If you keep putting it off by keeping the embryos in liquid-nitrogen limbo, who knows how they may eventually be used?"
-- San Jose Mercury News