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:
Giving special medication to the woman that results in the
development, growth, and maturation of eggs in a woman's ovaries.
Extracting perhaps 24 mature mature ova (aka oocytes) from the woman's
Fertilizing the ova with sperm, typically from her husband
or an anonymous donor.
Placing the embryos in a special incubator which encourages their
Selecting two to four healthy-looking embryos and implanting them in
the woman's uterus.
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.
How surplus embryos are processed:
There are only two options for the surplus embryos -- those that are
not implanted in the woman's uterus:
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
Their fate is mixed:
Some die during the freezing process;
Some die while they are subsequently thawed.
They may eventually die because of operator error or equipment malfunction.
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.
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.
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
Those embryos that are not preserved in liquid nitrogen will inevitably
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
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.
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:
Without donor consent
Numbers of labs
% of labs
Numbers of labs
% of labs
Cultured to demise (allowed to die) & discarded
Donated - research
Donated - diagnostic purposes
Donated - training
Donated - another patient
N = 232. Some percentages total more than 100% because some labs
employ multiple disposal methods.
IVF-produced embryos and their future:
Implanted embryos: Most die. Fewer than one in three develops
a fetus and eventually into a newborn.
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:
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:
Nearly 400,000 embryos ... have been frozen and stored
since the late 1970s.
Patients have designated only 2.8
% (about 11,000 embryos) for
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.
vast majority are doomed.
Non-frozen surplus embryos: There are only two possibilities;
both end in the death of the embryo:
They are actively killed or allowed to die.
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.
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
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:
Some say that it happens when the fetus loses its gill slit structures and tail,
at eight weeks from conception.
Some use the point when the fetus' face begins to look human, at
Others believe that personhood occurs
when the fetal brain has matured and first becomes conscious of itself and its
surroundings, around 26 weeks.
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.
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
Their theological belief in the existence of a soul, and
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
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.
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
"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
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."
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:
insane law, we will be obliged to implant a defective embryo in the
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
"Final report: Survey of Assisted Reproductive Technology: Embryo
laboratory procedures and practices," 1999-JAN-29
Carl T. Hall, "The forgotten embryo: Fertility clinics must store or
destroy the surplus that is part of the process." SF Gate News, at:
Rossella Lorenzi, "Italy approves embryo lawStrict rules will
mean a disaster for Italian research, say scientists," The
Scientist, 2003-DEC-12, at:
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: