Fertility patients' indecision about fate of stored embryos
Progress Educational Trust11 December 2008
A study undertaken in the US has revealed that fertility patients with frozen embryos in storage are unhappy with the options available in relation to embryo disposal. Anne Drapkin Lyerly MD, an obstetrician/gynaecologist and bioethicist at Duke University was lead investigator of the study published online in Fertility and Sterility. She said of patients in this situation that, they 'have had hard times thinking about destroying their embryos when they are emotionally and financially invested in trying to make a baby'.
1,020 fertility patients at nine clinics were canvassed for their thoughts about what should happen to embryos created during IVF processes and stored when they were not used. Only about two-thirds said that they were likely to use their embryos. Twenty per cent declared that they were likely to leave leftover embryos frozen 'forever'.
Researchers presented four 'disposition options'; thawing and discarding, reproductive donation, indefinite freezing and donation for research. The majority found each option unacceptable except donation for research; about 66 per cent of respondents said that they would be likely to donate the embryos for research, but that donation for that purpose was not available in all clinics. A ban on federal funding for research involving human embryos prevents many patients choosing this option.
More than half of patients said that they were 'very unlikely' to donate 'spare' embryos to another couple, citing reasons such as not wanting someone else bringing up their children. Lyerly believes this contradicts the conventional wisdom that 'if you respect or care about an embryo, you would want it to become a child' noting also that 'patients feel responsible for the care of the children resulting from their embryos'.
Elizabeth Ginsburg, medical director of the IVF clinic at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital remarked that patients have asked for their embryos once they themselves have decided not to use them. Small numbers of respondents in Lyerly's study suggested solutions which were not widely offered, such as holding a small ceremony whilst the embryos were thawed and disposed of, or placing them in the woman's body at a point in her cycle when she would be unlikely to conceive, thus letting them die naturally.
Anne Lyerly co-authored an earlier study in 2007 which questioned how many fertility patients would support donating their 'spare' embryos to embryonic stem (ES) cell research, rather than to general medical research; a 60 per cent majority were in support of this option compared to a 22 per cent group who would prefer to discard them or donate them to other couples for adoption. Despite this support, a removal of the ban to use federal funding for human cell research was vetoed on the same day as Lyerly's results were published.
Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.