Human Embryos Routinely Discarded at U.S. Fertility Clinics

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 1, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Human Embryos Routinely Discarded at U.S. Fertility Clinics

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by Maria Gallagher Staff Writer
September 1, 2004

Philadelphia, PA (
— Human embryos are routinely discarded at fertility clinics in the U.S., raising new concerns about the ethics of the in vitro fertilization industry.

A new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University indicates that 84 percent of clinics throw out "extra" embryos created during in IVF procedures.

As many as 400,000 other embryos are in a kind of icy limbo — frozen in storage facilities — likely to die before being implanted in a woman’s uterus.

In IVF, multiple embryos are often created to increase the chances that a pregnancy will be carried to term. Sometimes, couples opt to use excess embryos for future pregnancies, or to donate them to other couples wishing to adopt children.

The study showed that 76 percent of clinics offered the adoption option; 60 percent, disposal of the embryos before freezing; 54 percent, disposal after freezing; 60 percent, donation for scientific experimentation; and 19 percent, donation for training doctors.

One of the authors of the study, Arthur Caplan of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "There is certainly a lot more ambivalence about what embryos are than I had ever imagined before starting this study. The fact that these practices are so varied shows a lot more division even in groups that work with embryos than we might have guessed."

Clinics that disposed of embryos treated the days-old unborn children like medical waste and often discarded them by means of incineration.

About a third of the clinics surveyed did not dispose of embryos. The majority of those clinics reported that it was not the clinic’s policy to dispose of them, while the rest cited religious considerations or state legal restrictions.

Advocates of embryonic stem cell research hope to capitalize on the findings of the study—by encouraging the donation of the embryos for scientific experiments. But a number of bioethicists point out that such embryos should not be considered a resource to be experimented upon.

Observers say the study may intensify the debate over Proposition 71, the California ballot measure that would provide state funding for embryonic stem cell research. The ballot measure is supported by venture capitalists, some members of the Hollywood film industry, and groups that advocate for cures for various diseases.

Supporters of Proposition 71 have seized the opportunity to push for donation of embryos to stem cell research.

"If you can donate life-saving stem cells from a days-old fetus, that is a far greater goal to society than throwing it away in the trash," Fiona Hutton, a Proposition 71 spokeswoman, told the San Jose Mercury News.

But pro-life advocates say such research is unethical — and dangerous.

"Getting parental consent is not adequate," Jan Carroll of the California Pro-Life Council told the newspaper. "This is not valid consent. Embryos should have their own rights to give consent, and they don’t."

Some doctors involved in IVF say they have a moral obligation to produce fewer excess embryos during their procedures.

"Every embryo should be viewed as something more than just a piece of tissue," Dr. Carl Herbert of Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco told the Mercury News. "Even if couples decide to discard it, it should be considered that it was special."

An estimated 50,000 American women each year turn to IVF in the hopes of achieving pregnancy.

The IVF study, published online by Politics and the Life Sciences, can be found at