IVF rates are on the rise — and so are disputes over who gets ‘custody’ of frozen embryos when couples separate

Credit: Maria Fabrizio
Credit: Maria Fabrizio

Anyone who has been divorced knows the painful process well: disentangling finances, dividing possessions and mapping out custody arrangements for any children. And in recent years, with the use of artificial reproductive technologies on the rise, more couples have been confronting the even stickier question of what to do with frozen embryos.

For those who fail to plan for the worst, the results can be devastating.

Dr. Mimi Lee, a physician-scientist and pianist, said she and her husband froze their embryos before she underwent cancer treatment.


They produced five healthy embryos and froze them for when they would be ready to have children. Three years later, when they divorced, Dr. Lee wanted to use the embryos, but her husband sued to prevent her from doing so. The judge upheld the agreement that they had signed at the fertility clinic.

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Dr. Lee, 52, said she did not even remember signing the form at the clinic. “My state of mind at the time was complicated by cancer, being a newlywed and just this hope and opportunity to have children,” she said. “It was unfathomable that that’s what would eventually determine that my last chance of having biological children would be taken away from me.”

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