Lives in Limbo

Debate Over Future of Frozen Embryos

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ROME, NOV. 26, 2005 ( Italy’s National Bioethics Committee has come out in favor of permitting the adoption of frozen embryos. The committee, an advisory body to the national government, made the recommendation to fill a gap in the law on this subject, the newspaper La Repubblica reported Nov. 19.

A law approved in February 2004 prohibited the destruction of «surplus» embryos remaining after a woman undergoes in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. But nothing was established about what to do with the frozen embryos, now numbering around 30,000.

The committee voted in favor of allowing married couples, de facto couples and single persons to adopt the embryos. The law needs to be amended by Parliament for the committee’s recommendation to become effective. Until now, around 250 couples who owned frozen embryos have signed a declaration formally abandoning them, thus opening up the way for an eventual adoption.

Carlo Flamigni, an expert on IVF interviewed by La Repubblica, warned that there is only about a 10% probability that a frozen embryo can be thawed out, implanted and result in a successful pregnancy.

Cardinal Francesco Pompedda, retired prefect of the Apostolic Signature, the Church’s supreme court, told the newspaper that it is morally acceptable to adopt frozen embryos, in order to save a human life that would otherwise be destroyed.

He added, however, that donating the embryo to be used by another couple comes very close to using IVF for conceiving children through the help of someone outside the married couple, a practice not allowed by the Church.

While the Catholic Church opposes IVF, it has so far made no official declaration on the morality of adopting frozen embryos. In a May 31 article the Washington Post noted that Catholic moralists are divided on the question.

According to the article, as of May 2003 there were about 400,000 frozen embryos in U.S. clinics. Of these, 88% were reserved for the future use of couples, 3% were marked out for medical research, and only 2% were available for donation to other couples.


One of the few organizations active in organizing embryo adoptions is Nightlight Christian Adoptions, through its Snowflakes program. The Washington Post cited Lori Maze, director of the program, who said that since it began, in 1998, it has found embryo donors for 145 adoptive families, and that 59 of them have given birth to a total of 81 children.

An article published June 4 by the Baltimore Sun newspaper on embryo adoption commented on some of the moral questions involved. One of those interviewed by the paper was Douglas Johnson, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. Regarding the question of “surplus” embryos, he pointed out that before starting an IVF course of treatment, couples should decide not to create more embryos than they will use. But, if there are any they do not want, then these should be donated for adoption.

Another article on the Snowflakes program, published June 2 in the New York Times, added that only about half the embryos survive the thawing process. Of these, only around 35% result in a baby. Couples adopting or donating Snowflakes embryos are mostly Christian. And adopting couples must agree not to abort any embryos.

In May the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines that it said would «enhance the availability of embryos for donation,» noted the Times article. The changes involve exempting embryos from medical screenings required of donated tissues. A large number of frozen embryos could not have met the screening requirements, since many couples are not tested for communicable diseases beforehand.

The New York Times returned to the theme on June 12 with an article noting that relatively few couples ultimately decide to donate their embryos to another couple. Susan Klock, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University’s medical school, said that many couples are willing to donate when they start treatment. But a few years down the line, 9 out of 11 couples who had said they would donate to another couple were no longer willing to do so, Klock said.

Other countries are also starting to allow embryo adoption. In Spain, a Barcelona-based program had, two months after starting, led to pregnancies for 14 women, the newspaper ABC reported March 1.

Lives on ice

The existence of large numbers of frozen embryos is creating problems. At one clinic, around 1,100 clients have stopped paying the annual $300 fee required to continue conserving their frozen progeny, the Boston Globe reported May 18. The clinic is reluctant to destroy the embryos, fearing subsequent lawsuits.

«This is happening at cryobanks and IVF centers all over the country,» said Pamela Madsen, executive director of the American Fertility Council. Most couples, she explained, don’t make plans about what to do with «leftover» embryos after they have children, and some decide to keep them indefinitely in case their kids die young.

Frozen embryos are «‘human beings,» commented Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life to the Boston Globe. She also praised the recently adopted law in Italy under which it is permitted to create only those embryos that will be implanted into a mother’s womb.

Not all clinics refrain from destroying frozen embryos, however. In the Australian state of Victoria at least 6,642 embryos have been discarded, according to a Sept. 26 report in the Melbourne-based Age newspaper.

Under state legislation that came into effect in 1998, storage of frozen embryos is not allowed beyond five years. Previously, embryos created in IVF clinics could be stored indefinitely. According to the newspaper, only 5% of couples choose to donate their embryos to couples who have been unsuccessful in creating an embryo through IVF.

Some of the embryos beyond the time limit are used for research. One clinic reported using about 200 of the 2,520 discarded embryos for research.

Keeping embryos frozen for future use can, in fact, lead to strange situations, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported on July 5. The newspaper portrayed the case of Debbie Beasley, a 45-year-old registered nurse, who now has a 20-year-old daughter in college, 13-year-old twins, and a 5-month-old daughter.

The most recent addition to the family spent the last 13 years frozen in liquid nitrogen. That is longer than any other documented case where a frozen embryo has resulted in a healthy baby, according to Beasley’s fertility doctors.

After undergoing IVF treatment Beasley became pregnant with triplets. One was lost during her pregnancy, and the twins were born in 1992. Some years later they found out that the doctor at the clinic had taken eggs and embryos from patients without telling them. Some of their embryos had been sent to a university for experiments, but the Beasleys were able to retrieve eight embryos.

In the summer of 1996, she made a first attempt to implant some of the embryos, but nearly died due to an allergic reaction to one of the drugs used in the process, Years later she tried again, resulting in the young daughter.

The article commented that the story illustrates some of the perils facing IVF patients: risks to a woman’s health; increased chances of a multiple pregnancy; and questions about what to do with frozen embryos. Questions that often remain unresolved.

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