Determining the fate of “orphaned” embryos

Fertility specialists across the globe face the difficult decision of deciding what to do with “orphaned” embryos – embryos belonging to patients who have requested that their extra embryos created through IVF be cryopreserved and stored, but who are no longer in contact with their fertility clinic. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine considers embryos to have been “orphaned” when the clinic has had no contact from the individual or couple for a period of 5 years, are unable to contact the owner(s) of the embryos, and where there is no written instructions on file from the couple concerning disposition of the embryos.

In Canada, lawmakers have yet to weigh in on this contentious issue – one that is rife with moral and ethical implications. Theoretically, it is up to each couple to decide what should happen with their frozen “surplus” embryos when they no longer want to use them to create or add to their family. However, when a couple loses contact with the clinic and the clinic is unable to track down the couple, clinics are put in the challenging position of having to decide what to do with the abandoned embryos, whether or not a disposition consent was signed by the couple prior to treatment. To put this issue in perspective, a fertility clinic in downtown Toronto, Canada is currently housing 1000 embryos belonging to IVF patients who have long since been out of contact with the clinic. This clinic, and others around the world, are faced with the dilemma about how to dispose of these “orphaned” embryos.

A bioethicist has recently proposed that, rather than being destroyed, abandoned embryos should be donated to scientists for research purposes. Mr. Ryan Tonkens, a former research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Novel Tech Ethics unit, believes that in discarding abandoned embryos, “we are wasting a valuable scientific and clinical resource.” However, since there is no way of predicting whether IVF patients will eventually return to the clinic and want to use their embryos in the future, the majority of embryos are stored indefinitely – even when fertility clinics have on file, consent from patients to destroy or donate their embryos when they no longer wish to use them to create or add to their family. One Canadian clinic Director, Dr. Carl Laskin explains:

“The issue is, you are dreading that phone call from the couple that says, ‘We’ve been out of the country and we’ve decided we want to use the embryos.… And [when told the material is no more] they say: ‘You threw them out? How could you?…It is a very difficult area. As clinic directors, we talk about it frequently.”

The issue of what to do with unused embryos is also challenging for IVF patients. For example, Glenna Owen had two children through IVF, and although she now feels her family is complete and she does not want to have any more children, she feels attached to her six frozen embryos. She doesn’t quite feel “ready” to allow her embryos to be destroyed. Says Owen:

“It’s kind of akin to your parents selling your childhood home: You don’t want to live there yourself, but it is sad to see it go…As humans, we just form these attachments.”

In reference to the lack of Canadian laws and directives on this issue, Dr. Art Leader of the Ottawa Fertility Centre feels it is “anywhere from disappointing to disgusting that we don’t have an ethical framework” for deciding what to do with abandoned or unused embryos. Until the laws become clearer and provide guidance on how to handle these situations, fertility clinics are charged with making very difficult decisions.


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