IVF Leaving Ethics in the Dust

Frozen Embryos Generating a Host of New Legal Problems

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LONDON, MAY 10, 2003 (Zenit.org).- A new study revealed that U.S. fertility clinics have about 400,000 frozen human embryos in storage, the Washington Post reported May 8. The number is much larger than previous estimates. The embryos are being held for possible future use, though experience shows that many will simply be left unused.



The question of frozen embryos raises a number of problems. Storage fees run up to $1,500 a year. Yet the idea of throwing them out appalls those who protest at discarding human life. Some groups propose adoption of the unwanted embryos as an alternative to their destruction, but philosophers and theologians are divided over the morality of such action. The Catholic Church has made no official declaration as to whether such adoption is licit.

Further complicating matters are the recent experiments on human stem cells. These raise the possibility that the surplus frozen embryos could be used as a source of tissues either for experiments or commercial use.

The nationwide survey revealing how many embryos are frozen was carried out by the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology and RAND Corporation. The survey also found that the parents of at least 11,000 embryos have given explicit permission for their embryos to be made available for research.

One group that active promotes adoption of frozen embryos in the United States is Snowflakes. The Fullerton, California-based group is part of the Nightlight Christian Adoptions agency. So far, 19 babies have been born through Snowflakes, which matches infertile couples with embryos from other couples' IVF treatments, the British newspaper Telegraph reported March 30.

"I believe that every embryo is a child that deserves a chance to be born," said JoAnn Eiman, a director of Snowflakes. "This is more than mere tissue."

Congress recently approved $1 million for a public awareness program on embryo adoptions. Half of this has gone to Nightlight, and it is using the money to set up a promotional Web site and make video films and brochures to distribute to clinics. The remaining $500,000 has been distributed to other Christian-based adoption groups and centers.

Abortion rights groups fear adoption programs. The Telegraph quoted Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League, as saying that the idea of adopting embryos appeared to be laying the legal groundwork for considering embryos as human beings with full legal rights.

Spanish debate

In Spain, too, estimates on the numbers of frozen embryos have risen. The government calculates there are around 40,000 embryos held in 126 clinics, the Madrid-based ABC reported March 7. That's only a guess, since there is no official national registering process. In 1998 Spain's National Commission for Assisted Reproduction estimated there were over 25,000 frozen embryos, of which 15% had been held for more than five years.

A debate has raged in Spain over whether these embryos should be allowed to be used for scientific research. The Ethics Committee of the federal Science Ministry has come out in favor of using the stem cells from those frozen embryos that would otherwise be destroyed.

But a Church representative, Inocente García de Andrés, declared that such a use of frozen embryos is ethically unacceptable. The absolute value of human life, including that of the embryo, must be recognized, he said.

And when there's a divorce

Another series of problems resulting from frozen embryos relates to their fate after a divorce or separation. In Scotland, for instance, a woman discovered that her stored embryos had been destroyed at the request of her ex-husband, the Scotsman reported Feb. 10.

Margaret Grant found out that her former spouse had ordered the destruction after the couple split while undergoing infertility treatment. According to the UK's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, her ex-husband was legally entitled to discard the embryos without his ex-wife's permission or knowledge.

Margaret Grant is now campaigning for a change in laws so that clinics must inform both partners before embryos are destroyed.

In England a case involving two women, one divorced and the other no longer engaged, will be heard by the High Court this June, BBC reported Jan. 16. Natallie Evans and Lorraine Hadley are challenging, on human rights grounds, a law which says both parties must consent to the storage and use of the embryos.

Evans had six embryos frozen before undergoing cancer treatment, which resulted in her not being able to conceive naturally. Hadley has a 17-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, but suffers from fertility problems because of a medical condition. She wants to use two of her stored embryos to try to get pregnant. Both women say the frozen embryos represent their only chance of having a child.

Conceived as orphans

Apart from frozen embryos, IVF techniques continue to create a variety of other legal conundrums. In England this year the mother of a baby conceived through anonymous donated sperm won a court battle to put an end to her former partner's being recognized as the legal father.

The Telegraph on Feb. 19 noted that the pair were approved for donor insemination in 1996. But when this proved unsuccessful, the mother and her then partner signed a consent form for IVF treatment involving egg removal, fertilization with an anonymous sperm donor and embryo replacement. By signing the form, the man had acknowledged that he and the woman were being treated together -- even though he was not providing sperm -- and that he would become the legal father of any resulting child.

After years of legal battles, three judges of the Court of Appeal decided that, since the former partner did not provide the sperm, he should not have any legal status as the father of her child.

Also problematic is the question of children conceived after their father's death. Legal opinions are divided on the issue. Last year a federal judge in the United States ruled that two IVF children conceived and born after their father's death are not legally his offspring.

Netting and Rhonda Gillett were married in 1993. They had problems conceiving and she began fertility treatments. A year later, Netting was diagnosed with cancer. Because chemotherapy could leave him sterile, he had sperm preserved. After his death in 1995 his wife underwent IVF treatment, resulting in the birth of twins.

The federal judge's decision in the case means the children are not entitled to Social Security survivor benefits, the Arizona Daily Star reported Nov. 13. U.S. District Judge John Roll said Arizona law requires that a child has to be at least conceived at the time of the parent's death to be considered an heir.

A legal case in England produced a different outcome. A widow won a battle to have her dead husband recognized as the legal father of children conceived and born after his death, the Guardian reported March 1.

Diane Blood, who first fought a legal battle for the right to have children using her dead husband's sperm, went to the High Court to have him legally recognized as their father.

Previously a UK law specifically denied children conceived after their father's death the right to have his name on their birth certificates. This has now been declared to be incompatible with the European convention on human rights.

The multiple legal and ethical complications of IVF procedures give good cause to rethink the wisdom of the rush to conceive children at any cost.