May 30, 2024

What’s to be done with America’s abandoned embryos?

There could be a million of them

How many frozen embryos have been abandoned in American fertility clinics? No one knows. But the answer is at least hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, according to an NBC News report. “Abandoned embryos are a major problem and it’s everywhere,” says Dr Christine Allen, an embryologist and IVF business consultant.

An “abandoned embryo” is one which for which a clinic’s patient has not paid storage fees and fails to respond to letters and calls from the clinic.

“The problem is, even if an embryo is considered abandoned, even if there’s a contract in place, it’s very difficult to get rid of. What if one day someone shows up and says, ‘Where’s my embryo?’ And you wind up on the front page of the newspaper for destroying someone’s embryo? The damage would be done,” Pasquale Patrizio, director of the Yale Fertility Center, told NBC News.

The embryos are tiny, but the storage containers are not. Some clinics are running out of room.

IVF doctors believe that the American doctors are creating too many embryos. In Germany and Italy all the embryos created in IVF have to be transferred to the uterus. Doctors don’t need to create lots of embryos.

 “[But] you still see many physicians with the mentality of, ‘the more, the merrier,’” Dr Allen says. “So you see [some women] having 40, 50 or 60 eggs retrieved in a cycle and the embryologist gets the orders from her doctor to inseminate all of them — and the question isn’t asked if the patient even wants that many inseminated. Nobody’s going to have 30 kids.”

It’s a legal and ethical conundrum for which no one has a feasible solution.

Catholic bioethicist Tad Pacholczyk told NBC News that couples should create trust funds for their surplus embryos, so that the storage fees will be paid even if they pass away. “Creating a trust fund for the frozen embryo shows a couple is taking responsibility for what they created. To me, the complexity of the situation about what to do with these excess embryos is a powerful reminder that when you cross moral lines, there’s a price to be paid.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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