A survey of couples who underwent in-vitro fertilization (IVF) at a large Australian clinic found that the majority preferred that their unused embryos go to “some use” rather than be discarded - with most wanting that use to be scientific research.
The fate of frozen embryos that are left over after IVF treatment is an important issue not only for couples, but for the public as a whole. One option is to donate the extra embryos for stem-cell research, which would destroy the embryos to harvest primitive cells that have the capacity to develop into any type of mature tissue in the body.
Researchers believe stem-cell research could eventually yield therapies for a range of diseases, from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease to diabetes. But opponents say the destruction of embryos is morally wrong.
In the U.S., President George W. Bush recently vetoed legislation that would have allowed federal funding for stem-cell research using leftover embryos from IVF clinics.
The new survey, published in the journal Fertility & Sterility, found that of 123 couples with frozen embryos in storage, 30 percent elected to dispose them.
However, more couples - 42 percent - donated their extra embryos to research aimed at improving assisted reproduction therapies, which was the only research-related option available to them at the time. Another 16 percent donated their embryos to other infertile couples.
But when asked, 69 percent of the couples overall said they would have considered donating to stem-cell research if that had been possible. (Australia has since passed a law allowing such donation.)
This finding is “indicative of strong support for stem-cell research,” said study co-author Karin Hammarberg of The University of Melbourne, Carlton, Victoria.
The survey also found that couples often struggled when the time came to decide. Nearly half said choosing the fate of their frozen embryos was “quite difficult” or “very distressing.”
The process “clearly poses a dilemma” for many couples, Hammarberg told Reuters Health.
In cases where couples are uncertain what to do or where partners disagree on the decision, IVF clinics should actively assist them, according to the researcher.
“I think IVF clinics have an obligation to try to help those who have difficulty arriving at a decision in any way they can,” she said.
Some couples might find it helpful to discuss their feelings with a counselor or doctor, Hammarberg noted. At the Monash Clinic, she and her colleagues hold regular group seminars to help couples that need to make a decision about their frozen embryos.
SOURCE: Fertility & Sterility, July 2006.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD