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Human embryos and fertility clinics

Are pro-life leaders
ignoring the real problems?

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In-vitro Fertilization (IVF) Clinics:

Many human fertility clinics perform In-vitro Fertilization (IVF) procedures. The term "in-vitro" is derived from a Latin phrase meaning "in glass." Some couples are unable to conceive naturally. So, ova extracted from a woman's body are fertilized in a glass dish in a laboratory. Usually, her husband's sperm is used. A few of the healthiest embryos are implanted in the woman's uterus.

These facilities are sometimes called Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) laboratories. There are about 356 such labs in the U.S.

Their goal is to impregnate women who otherwise would not be able to have a child. The procedure involves:

bullet Giving special medication to the woman that results in the development, growth, and maturation of eggs in a woman's ovaries.
bullet Extracting perhaps 24 mature mature ova (aka oocytes) from the woman's ovaries.
bullet Fertilizing the ova with sperm, typically from her husband or an anonymous donor.
bullet Placing the embryos in a special incubator which encourages their growth.
bullet Selecting two to four healthy-looking embryos and implanting them in the woman's uterus.
bullet Disposing of the remaining 20 or so surplus embryos in some manner.

The disposal of almost all of the embryos results, or will result, in their death. Yet, even though the pro-life movement regards all embryos as human persons, pro-lifer leaders seem to be mainly concerned about the few dozen embryos which have been killed by having their stem cells extracted. There seems to be little or no concern over the many hundreds of thousands of embryos which have been killed or which will eventually die in IVF clinics.

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How surplus embryos are processed:

There are only two options for the surplus embryos -- those that are not implanted in the woman's uterus:

bullet Most often, the spare embryos are deep-frozen in liquid nitrogen. This is called "cryopreservation."  Of the 232 labs who returned surveys to a government survey, 215 (94.7%) have the equipment to preserve embryos.  

Their fate is mixed:
bullet Some die during the freezing process;
bullet Some die while they are subsequently thawed.
bullet They may eventually die because of operator error or equipment malfunction.
bullet If the original attempt at IVF fails to produce a pregnancy, then some embryos may be thawed out and a second implantation attempted. Probably about three out of four of these thawed embryos will die without developing into a fetus. Probably fewer than one in four will develop into a fetus and a newborn.
bullet Some embryos will probably lose their ability to induce a pregnancy over time. One source says that about 25% of frozen and thawed embryos do not survive between a first and second impregnation procedure. Another source says that some frozen embryos might survive for decades.
bullet On the order of 9,000 of the 400,000 embryos preserved in cryogenic freezers in American fertility clinics are available for use by other couples. As of 2003-AUG, 31 embryos have been successfully implanted in the uterus of unrelated women, and were later born. Fourteen more are expected to be born by the end of 2003. These are often called "snowflake babies" by pro-life groups. 4
bullet Those embryos that are not preserved in liquid nitrogen will inevitably die. They have no chance of living or developing into a newborn. Many clinics simply discard or destroy them. Some embryos are simply flushed down a sink drain while alive. Some are transferred to a medical waste bin where they are later incinerated, while alive. Some simply expose the embryos to the air and let them die naturally; this normally takes up to four days. Still other embryos are donated for research and experimentation, for personnel training, or for diagnostic purposes. At this stage in their development, they fortunately have no brain, no central nervous system, no pain sensors, no consciousness, no awareness of their environment. Thus, no matter by which method they are disposed, they will feel no discomfort.

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Government survey:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operate a Laboratory practice Assessment Branch in Chamblee, GA. They contracted with Analytical Sciences Inc. to conduct a survey to determine what procedures were used by IVF (In-vitro Fertilization) fertility clinics in the U.S. The goal was to help develop a set "of quality standards specifically designed to assure the quality performance of embryo laboratory procedures" at Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) laboratories.  232 valid responses were returned in mid-1998. 1

Many dozens of of questions were asked of these IVF/ART labs in the survey. Of particular interest is Item 79. It outlines what happens to those embryos which are neither implanted nor deep-frozen.

About half of the IVF labs reported that they immediately discarded these embryos, presumably while they were still alive. About the same number simply allow them to die and then discard them.

The ART Embryo Laboratory Survey reported the data in the table below. Note that the data list the number and percentages of labs which follow these procedure. We have been unable to find data on the actual numbers of embryos which are disposed of in these ways:

Item 79: How IVF labs handle embryos or zygotes that are not implanted in a woman's womb and which are not deep-frozen for potential future use:

  With donor consent Without donor consent
Handling procedure

Numbers of labs

% of labs

Numbers of labs

% of labs

Immediately discarded 115 49.6% 15 6.5%
Cultured to demise (allowed to die) & discarded 107 46.1 28 12.1
Donated - research 55 23.7 0 0
Donated - diagnostic purposes 27 11.6 0 0
Donated - training 52 22.4 9 3.9
Donated - another patient 43 18.5 0 0

N = 232. Some percentages total more than 100% because some labs employ multiple disposal methods.

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IVF-produced embryos and their future:

bullet Implanted embryos: Most die. Fewer than one in three develops into a fetus and eventually into a newborn.
bullet Frozen surplus embryos: Past estimates of the number of frozen embryos in the U.S. vary from 100,000 to 188,000. However, Carl T. Hall, of the San Francisco Gate News wrote:

"experts said that was little more than a guess, and even if it was accurate at one time, it is long out of date now. Plans for what would be the first careful national accounting are being prepared now by the reproductive medicine society." 2

The RAND Law & Health Initiative estimated in 2003 that:

bullet Nearly 400,000 embryos ... have been frozen and stored since the late 1970s.
bullet Patients have designated only 2.8 % (about 11,000 embryos) for research.

The RAND study appears to be the most recent estimate, as of late 2007.

There is really no future use for these embryos. A small percentage will be implanted in the womb of the woman who donated the ova, in order to make a second attempt at a pregnancy. A very small number might be "adopted" by other families. However few couples are willing to donate their embryos. They dislike the idea of having a child of theirs being raised in another family. Most couples would prefer to have a child that is genetically theirs, rather than "adopt" a pre-embryo from another couple. The vast majority are doomed.

bullet Non-frozen surplus embryos: There are only two possibilities; both end in the death of the embryo:
bullet They are actively killed or allowed to die.
bullet Their stem cells are extracted for use in research. Embryonic stem cells can theoretically be coaxed to become any of  the 220 cell types in the human body. Many researchers believe that stem cells offer great promise to cure or treat diseases and disorders which lower the quality and duration of life for over 100 million Americans. Unfortunately it will probably take two decades for research on embryonic stem cells to produce routine treatments and cures. Research using adult stem cells have a two decade head start on embryonic stem cells and already have practical uses; however, they are limited in the variety of cell types that they can become.

One source speculates that hundreds of thousands of unused embryos have been destroyed in fertility clinics. 2 This compares to only a few dozen embryos which have had their stem cells removed and used to create stem cell lines in the lab.

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Ethical considerations:

As with other questions about abortion, the ethics of embryo treatment at IVF facilities depend upon the individual's belief about human life -- specifically when an embryo or fetus becomes a human person:

bullet Supporters of the pro-choice position generally believe that an embryo and a fetus are forms of human life with the potential to become a newborn baby. Most also believe that the transition from life to human personhood happens much later than conception:
bullet Some say that it happens when the fetus loses its gill slit structures and tail, at eight weeks from conception.
bullet Some use the point when the fetus' face begins to look human, at 10 weeks.
bullet Others believe that personhood occurs when the fetal brain has matured and first becomes conscious of itself and its surroundings, around 26 weeks.
bullet The Jewish religion has traditionally taught that a fetus becomes a full human person when it is half emerged from its mother's body.
bullet Some believe that personhood only starts after birth, when the newborn is separated from its mother.

Pro-choicers generally view a five day old embryo -- often called a pre-embryo -- as a potential person. At this stage, an embryo has no brain, central nervous system,  mouth, heart, lungs, or other internal organs. It has no organs to see, hear, touch, taste; it lacks a body, head, arms, legs; it has no self awareness, memory, thought processes, or consciousness. It is smaller than a pin-prick. But an embryo does have the potential to grow into a fetus and become a newborn baby.

Most would treat embryos with respect, because of their potential to develop into human persons. But they do not generally regard embryos themselves to be persons. Their death does not represent a serious moral concern, particularly if humanity benefited from their death. They do not consider the killing of an embryo to be murder.

bullet Supporters of the pro-life position have a deep concern over at least some of the embryo deaths in IVF labs. They generally believe that human personhood begins at conception. Thus, a just-fertilized ovum is a full human being, with a soul. It should have the right to life, and to have all of the other legal rights of any other citizen. This belief is largely founded on:
bullet Their theological belief in the existence of a soul, and
bullet The fact that a unique human DNA is created at conception.

To some pro-life supporters, creating 24 human beings, and then murdering 21 of them in order to produce one newborn is much too high a price to pay. It is mass murder. One would expect that pro-life groups would actively picket and demonstrate at IVF clinics. However, we have never seen an account in the media of this actually happening.

As noted above, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of embryos that have been deep-frozen in fertility clinics, there is speculation that hundreds of thousands of additional unused embryos have been actively destroyed. 2 But very few of pro-life demonstrations are directed at the labs that have killed these massive numbers of embryos. Attention has been concentrated on the few dozen embryos whose stem cells were removed and used to create cultures in medical research labs.

We are at a loss to understand why pro-lifer leaders in the U.S. have concentrated on the few dozen embryos used in stem cell research, while almost ignoring the hundreds of thousands of embryos who have died in other ways in IVF clinics.

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Recent developments:

bullet 2001-DEC-28: VA: Pro-lifers demonstrate at clinic: About 48 pro-life demonstrators protested at a Norfolk, VA research clinic on the 20th anniversary of the first baby born by in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Their concern is that many embryos created during the IVF process are later destroyed. Mo Woltering, spokesperson for the American Life League (ALL) said:

"The whole process is actually fraught with needless death. And then on top of that, the Jones Institute [for Reproductive Medicine] here in [Norfolk,] Va. announced over the summer that they are actually creating embryos specifically to be killed for research."

He feels that many couples agree to an IVF procedure without fully thinking through the ethical considerations:

"They're not considering those children who are being conceived and then not being able to have their life fulfilled...As this issue becomes more in the limelight and forces people to think through the ethical ramifications of in vitro, then I think we'll see some more ... people questioning or certainly not condoning it."

A prayer vigil was planned for 2002-FEB-2 in Fairfax, VA.

This is the first demonstration of which we are aware against the destruction of surplus embryos in IVF labs. 3

bullet 2003-DEC-11: Italy: Strict IVF bill passed: The Italian Senate approved a bill which controls the creation and use of human embryos. The bill had previously been passed by the Italian Parliament in June. The bill bans many practices that are commonly followed in other countries. These include: donor insemination, access to reproductive techniques for single women, freezing of embryos, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis for preventing genetically transmitted diseases. Only three embryos may now be fertilized at a time, and all three must be transferred into the woman's womb at the same time. Elsewhere in the world, twenty or more are fertilized, and three or so of the healthiest are placed in the woman's womb. Once an Italian couple agrees to the procedure, they will not be allowed to change their mind.

The bill has been judged "unacceptable and immoral" by some of Italy's leading scientists. Geneticist Alberto Piazza, fertility expert Carlo Flamigni, Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini, and others released a statement which said, in part:

"Some of these bans, such as that of the preimplantation diagnosis with the obligations of transferring all the formed embryos in the womb, are astonishing from a scientific point of view and disgusting from a moral point of view."

Montalcini is reported as saying that the new law "doesn't have any scientific justification" and represents "a step backwards of a century."

Nino Guglielmino, head of the Hera Medical Center, who specializes in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, said:

"Under this insane law, we will be obliged to implant a defective embryo in the womb."

Arne Sunde, chairman of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology is reported as saying that the bill

"...will be disastrous for Italian research and clinical practice in the field of reproductive medicine. Italy hosts many good research centers which will have to move their projects outside Italy. Clinical practice in Italy will become less efficient and will have an increased frequency of negative side effects, such as multiple pregnancies, compared to other European countries." 6

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  1. "Final report: Survey of Assisted Reproductive Technology: Embryo laboratory procedures and practices," 1999-JAN-29
  2. Carl T. Hall, "The forgotten embryo: Fertility clinics must store or destroy the surplus that is part of the process." SF Gate News, at:
  3. Christine Hall, "Pro-Lifers Protest In Vitro Fertilization,", 2001-DEC-28, at:
  4. Stuart Shepard,  "Frozen Embryo Adoption on the Rise," Focus on the Family, 2003-AUG-14, at:
  5. "Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program," Nightlight Christian Adoptions, at:
  6. Rossella Lorenzi, "Italy approves embryo lawStrict rules will mean a disaster for Italian research, say scientists," The Scientist, 2003-DEC-12, at:
  7. D.I. Hoffman et al., "Cryopreserved embryos in the United States and their availability for research," Fertility and Sterility 79 (5), 2003-MAY, Pages.1063-1069. A summary is available at: "How many frozen human embryos are available for research?," Law & Health Initiative, 2003, at:

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Copyright 2001 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-AUG-21
Latest update: 2007-NOV-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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