The Moral Quandary of IVF and ‘Excess Embryos’

News: Commentary
by Paul Murano  •  •  September 27, 2019   

Millions of unused embryos discarded

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Only a fraction of pre-natal homicides that occur legally each year in the United States are surgical abortions. Most people forget to include lives lost through the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process. Of the countless "excess embryos" created through IVF, many are intentionally destroyed, some die from unsuccessful implantation and some are frozen in suspended animation.

The ethical line was crossed 40 years ago. When technology and misplaced compassion combined to begin manufacturing human beings in a glass dish, a new (dis)order of procreation was introduced. The world's first child born through IVF came in Great Britain in 1978. In the United States, it was 1981.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, the recorded number of embryo transfers from glass to womb was 143,286. These reportedly resulted in 72,870 successful pregnancies and 59,334 live births.

Violating natural law by accepting procreative technologies that replace the marital act has severe repercussions, to which 'no moral resolution is apparent.'

Taking into consideration all the multiple-child births, 71,152 children were born through assisted reproductive technology (ART) that year. Looking at these numbers, only about half of these children survived the trauma of being transferred from the glass to the womb to attach to their mothers' endometrium, and of these, a still smaller number were eventually born.

What the CDC did not record is the number of embryonic children created in the petri dish that were not transferred for implantation into their mothers, who were instead destroyed, frozen or given over to science (which also includes being killed).

According to Dr. George Attia, associate professor and director of the Infertility Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, 8–14 eggs are typically retrieved from a woman's ovaries to be fertilized for IVF. If we were to estimate a conservative average of 10 embryos per woman, with approximately 12% of women receiving infertility services in their lifetime (according to a survey taken by the CDC between 2006 and 2010), you are left with dire numbers.

Official statistics of Great Britain, gathered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, show that since August 1991 more than 3.5 million human embryos have been created and nearly 1.7 million were discarded unused; 23,480 were discarded after being taken out of storage; almost 5,900 were set aside for scientific research; almost 840,000 were put into storage for future use; and more than 2,000 were stored for donation.

Further, almost 1.4 million embryos were implanted with the hope of beginning pregnancy but fewer than one in six were successful.

Putting aside the countless deaths and waste of human life that IVF produces, there are hundreds of thousands of embryonic children now frozen in suspended animation around the United States.

Recently, NBC reported that frozen and abandoned embryos in U.S. fertility clinics may now number in the millions. These human beings linger in liquid nitrogen at -321 degrees Fahrenheit, some for many years. Parents abandon their frozen children for various reasons: some couples break up, others become too old for pregnancy and others simply lose interest. Nonetheless, this raises the vital ethical question: What are we to do with all these images of God, cryogenically frozen, with nowhere to go?

The option of "embryo adoption" has been proposed as one answer to this question, but not without controversy. The closest the Catholic Church has officially come to taking a stand on this question can be found in the 2008 Vatican document Dignitas Personae, and it expresses serious reservations. DP no. 19 states:

The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood; this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

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.

All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.

What, then, to do about all these frozen children?

Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., of the National Catholic Bioethics Center believes there are several sound reasons to believe embryo adoption is unethical, one of which is that a woman pregnant with someone else's child does damage to the unitive dimension of marriage.

Father Tad explains his solution:

[If] our children are frozen, we don't need to clothe, feed, or educate them; our care for them can only be expressed by paying the bill each month to replenish the liquid nitrogen in their storage tanks. … In my opinion, parents have an obligation to care for their children in this way until some other option becomes available in the future (maybe a sophisticated "embryo incubator" or "artificial womb" of some kind), or until there is reasonable certainty that they have died on their own from decay or "freezer burn."

Choices have consequences. Violating natural law by accepting procreative technologies that replace the marital act has severe repercussions, to which "no moral resolution is apparent."

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