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Handling surplus embryos in fertility clinics

1. Ethics of government involvement.
2. Success rates.
3. Another approach

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The ethics of government involvement:

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA wrote that embryo adoption is a sham:

"The Bush administration and Congress know all these facts, but have nevertheless poured more than $1 million of taxpayer money into the Snowflakes program and others aimed at facilitating 'embryo adoption'."

"This is a nice way to score points with those who advocate the view that embryos are actual babies and should not be used for research purposes. But it is not the best way to help couples who want to have actual babies."

"One million dollars would be far better spent matching fertile couples willing to make embryos with infertile couples, rather than trying to get them to use unhealthy frozen ones."

"One million dollars could also help defray the staggering costs of IVF, which only middle- and upper-class couples can currently afford."

"But when the money is spent on programs like Snowflakes, the only explanation is ideology not medicine." 1

Dr. Jeffrey P. Kahn, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota wrote:

"For the federal government to fund programs to exclusively encourage donation to other couples is to use public money to endorse a particular view about the status of embryos and what should be done with them."

"Most important, it is a step away from couples controlling the fate of their embryos, and toward viewing embryos as needing government protection and the help of groups that seek to "place" them with caring families. The way we're heading, it's a short step to lab freezers being called orphanages, and social workers assigned to look after the interests of their frozen charges. Is it cold in here, or is it just me?" 2

Success rates with embryo implantation:

A study published online by the journal Fertility and Sterility found that:

bullet Women who became pregnant after implantation with frozen embryos donated by other couples were able to carry at least one baby to term in 35.5% of the cases.
bullet Women who used her and her husband's own frozen embryos had at least one successful birth from 22 to 32% of the time.

Dr. Jeffrey Keenan, medical director of the National Embryo Donation Center, said:

"We've had embryos that have been frozen for 14 years that have resulted in normal pregnancies and children. We don't have a time limit on how long these embryos can be frozen." 3

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An alternate method of handling surplus embryos:

As noted above, the most common method of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) involves the harvesting of perhaps two dozen ova, fertilizing them in a laboratory, selecting a few of the healthiest looking pre-embryos and implanting all of them in the woman's womb.

A long-running study in Finland recommends a different approach. They advocate implanting only a single embryo as "the cheapest and most effective way for women to have a healthy baby through fertility treatment."

The leader of the study, Hannu Martikainen of the University of Oulu in Finland, said:

"At a time when there is an intense debate in many countries about how to reduce multiple pregnancy rates and provide affordable fertility treatment, policy makers should be made aware of our results. These data should also encourage clinics to evaluate their embryo transfer policy and adopt single embryo transfer as their everyday practice for women younger than 40." 4

The study found that birth rate for women who received a single embryo was nearly 42% compared with a rate of 37% for those receiving multiple embryos.

Implanting a single embryo lowers the risk of multiple pregnancies with the associated problems of:

bullet Miscarriages,
bullet Premature birth,
bullet Long-term health problems for the child, and
bullet Danger to the woman's health.

By standardizing on a single implanted embryo instead of two or more, the number of harvested and fertilized embryos that are needed should be significantly reduced. Thus there would be many fewer surplus embryos to be frozen.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Arthur Caplan, "The problem with 'embryo adoption.' Why is the government giving money to 'Snowflakes'?" MSNBC, 2003-JUN-24, at:
  2. Jeffrey Kahn, " 'Adoption' of frozen embryos a loaded term,", 2002-SEP-17, at:
  3. "Embryo Adoption Gives Couples a Chance to Become Parents," Family News in Focus, 2008-MAR-03, at:
  4. "Single embryo best for fertility treatment: study," Reiters, 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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