Thousands of Frozen Embryos Left Abandoned

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by Anita Carey  •  •  August 13, 2019   

An injustice that cannot be resolved

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DETROIT ( - Fertility clinics are facing an ethical dilemma of what to do with the frozen embryos abandoned by their parents.

Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), or in vitro fertilization (IVF), was first accomplished in 1978 with the birth of Louise Brown. Since then, it is estimated that worldwide, over 8 million babies have been born by IVF.

In the United States, ART is currently used for approximately 1.7% of all live births. 

The techniques have been honed and refined over the years, and recent scientific reports note the success rates have stabilized — approximately 36% of embryo transfers result in pregnancy. 

What was also reported is the protocol to freeze all embryos prior to implantation is gaining ground. Success rates with frozen embryos are on par with fresh embryos, which is fueling growth in the number of women choosing to "bank" their eggs for future use. Additionally, ART using donated embryos is the least expensive of all the ways couples have to become parents.

The cost to transfer a donated embryo averages $8,000 while IVF can range from $12,000 to $17,000. Adoption costs for a child can top $20,000.

In the United States, over 87,000 cycles were done solely for "banking" eggs or embryos for future use. In that ART procedures are often more successful with donor eggs, young women can be paid thousands of dollars for their eggs.

However, in some cases, the income taxes and medical costs from complications from the egg donation procedure end up being higher than that compensation.  

There aren't reliable or even consistent estimates on the number of embryos that are frozen — reports vary from 500,000 to over 1 million in the United States alone. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not require fertility clinics to report on how many they have preserved for future use.

In 2017, the most recent data available notes there were more than 284,000 ART cycles performed in 448 reporting fertility clinics in the United States. 

Of those 284,000 cycles, 68,908 women delivered 78,052 babies. This does not include the 18 times an new and experimental procedure was used.  

The 2016 National Summary Report on ART notes the number of single births are increasing and births of twins and triplets are decreasing. Embryo transfers are increasing but those still fall short of transfers with two or more embryo.

The report notes that in 0.9% of cases, the outcome of the pregnancy resulted in induced abortion. Additionally, the discrepancy in the number of births vs. pregnancies is caused naturally by the death of the unborn child or through an abortive procedure called multifetal pregnancy reduction. The CDC defines that as a procedure to "improve the chances that the remaining fetuses will develop into healthy infants."

The CDC does not collect information on how many "excess" babies are aborted or miscarried.

Embryos are generally stored at the fertility clinics, and storage fees can range from $500 to $1,000 per year. Embryos are considered abandoned when the biological parents stop paying storage fees for at least a year and/or refuse to answer communications from the fertility clinic. 

Fertility clinics are reluctant to dispose of these abandoned embryos, even with the contractual stipulations, fearing a wrongful death lawsuit and a public relations nightmare if a parent attempts to collect their embryos. 

In the 1990s, fertility clinics inseminated the most eggs that they could because so many embryos didn't survive the freeze and thaw process. Although techniques have improved, some clinics are still creating a huge surplus of embryos. 

The custody of embryos is passed to the children who will have to decide if their brothers and sisters will live or die.

There are also custody issues that arise if the couple divorces. There are numerous cases in the court system to address the issue, and the embryos have to remain frozen until the legal battle is settled. 

Additionally, if the parents die, the issue of custody of the embryos is passed to their children who will then have to decide if their brothers and sisters will live or die. 

Some parents have expressed interest in donating their embryos to science, but very few places will accept them. The University of Michigan is among just a few research institutes in the United States willing to work with embryonic stem cells. 

To combat the problem, groups looking to pair donor parents with adoptive parents are evolving. Embryo Adoption Awareness Center, the National Embryo Donation Center and others have helped hundreds of babies be born. 

Embryo donors may have open adoptions but may have little to no say over who is allowed to adopt their children. Some embryo adoption centers are Christian-based while others advertise their willingness to work with "non-traditional families."

Since 2004, the Department of Health and Human Services has run the Embryo Awareness Adoption Program that gives grants totaling around $1 million per year for organizations to spread awareness of embryo adoption.

The Catholic Church has not definitively ruled on the morality of adopting frozen embryos. In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the instruction Dignitas Personae to address certain bioethical questions. Theologians have used this instruction to argue both sides of the debate.

At The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), ethicist Stephen Napier and John Haas, president emeritus, discuss section 19 of Dignitas Personae, which reads:

It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of "prenatal adoption." This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.

Napier notes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Pontifical Academy for Life both interpreted "the issue of embryo adoption was still an open question." He goes on to surmise that if they were wrong, the Vatican would have issued a public correction.

"But there has not been any correction; consequently, the question on embryo adoption remains open," he said.

He further argues that it "is clearly an act by which a young human being is saved." Adoption is encouraged as an act of charity by the Church, and since the child is younger and the woman must sacrifice more, she exhibits more charity. He concludes with the witness to the inherent dignity of all human beings by the act. 

Haas argues though these motives are good, "artificial heterologous procreation and surrogate mothering (a woman not the mother the child 'renting' out her womb for gestation) are wrong." He also said that the integrity of the marital union is violated by the placement of another couple's child inside the womb.

Haas points out that arbitrary judgments will be used throughout the process. Parents choosing to adopt embryos could choose the gender, race or other features for their child. Additionally, some embryos will die in the thawing process and those that live will be judged as to which are most likely to survive.

"These are arbitrary criteria used to decide who will have a chance at life and who will not," he notes. 

Haas also argues the rights of the child to a mother and a father could be violated by being adopted to a single mother or father or a same-sex couple. 

As regrettable as it is, as [Dignitas Personae] says, "it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved," Haas concludes.

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