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Stem cell research

The ethical problems of handling
surplus embryos in fertility clinics

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bullet "...there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the [hundreds of] thousands of 'frozen' embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons." Pope John Paul II, 1996.

bullet "We need to look at these cryogenic tanks as frozen orphanages rather than some kind of material that scientists can manipulate for whatever reason they would like to." Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), 2001

bullet "Looking into Hannah's eyes, I weep for the roughly 188,000 frozen human embryos like her placed in frozen-embryo orphanages who could be adopted rather than terminated with my federal tax dollars." Marlene Strege, testifying at a congressional hearing in 2001. She is the mother of Hannah who developed from an adopted embryo.


According to Reuters News Agency:

"More than 3.5 million babies have been born worldwide using assisted reproductive technology since July 25, 1978, when British doctors delivered the world's first test-tube baby, Louise Brown. The technique involves surgically removing eggs from a woman's ovaries and combining them with sperm in the lab. Doctors then pick the best embryos -- typically one or two -- and implant them in the uterus." 1

Only a few of the embryos are implanted. Most pro-lifers and some others view the unused, surplus embryos as human persons, and are thus concerned about the latter's fate.

Essentially all will die as embryos:

bullet Some labs simply discard surplus embryos.
bullet Others are cryopreserved -- frozen in liquid nitrogen for future use. The acts of freezing and thawing embryos results in the death of about half of them.
bullet Most will be discarded months or years later when their parents decide they have no more use for them.
bullet Some will die as a result of human error or equipment malfunction.

Ethical problems associated with disposal of surplus embryos are similar to those associated with the creation of embryonic stem cell lines. However the surplus embryos should be of much greater concern, because they number in the hundreds of thousands whereas the number of embryos killed to extract their stem cells number in the hundreds.

Curiously, the ethics of embryonic stem cell research has attracting a massive amount of attention and moral outrage from governments and conservative agencies, whereas the fate of the vastly greater numbers of surplus embryos in fertility clinics is almost ignored by religious and social conservatives.

Topics covered in this section:

bullet What happens in an in-vitro fertility clinic?
bullet Ethical concerns about discarding surplus embryos
bullet Embryo adoptions
bullet Ethics of government involvement. Success rates. Another approach

Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Single embryo best for fertility treatment: study," Reuters, 2009-MAR-25, at:

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Copyright 2002 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-SEP-25
Latest update: 2009-MAR-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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