Store? Destroy? Donate—to science or another family? More and more couples who’ve had a child with IVF (in vitro fertilization) will be forced to confront this difficult choice.
“I told my husband, ‘Don’t be surprised if 15 years from now we end up with a teenager on our doorstep,’” says Jacqui Worthley from Eagan, Minnesota. She and her husband, Jeff, decided to donate their eight embryos, left over from a successful IVF, to another couple. “If the child ever wanted to contact us, our door is open.”
Of course, most women undergoing an IVF cycle actually hope for extra embryos, so that if they don’t become pregnant the first time, another attempt at pregnancy will be possible with the cryopreserved (frozen) fertilized eggs. And even if the first IVF cycle is successful, extra embryos mean that a couple has a head start if they want another child in the future, since the fertilized eggs can be kept in frozen storage for several years. But what most couples don’t want to think about is what will happen to any embryos no longer needed: the leftovers that nevertheless contain the nucleus of potential life.
Four Options for Frozen Embryos
There are only four options at this time: store, destroy, turn over to science, or donate to another couple. Nobody knows how many embryos currently linger in nitrogen vats across the country; a 2003 survey published in the journal, Fertility and Sterility, put the number at around 400,000. Options two through four—destruction or donation—make many couples’ guts churn. That’s probably why, according to the American Fertility Association, (www.theafa.org) most couples elect to do nothing, keeping the embryos frozen and paying the storage feels, thereby putting a squeeze on fertility clinics’ freezer space. In some cases, unpaid fees mean it is then left to the fertility clinics to locate the parents and warn them about the imminent destruction of their embryos unless they are willing to pay for more storage time (which varies across the country but costs hundreds of dollars per year).
“Most of our patients are evenly split between stem cell research and donating to another couple,” says Susan Treiser, M.D., Ph.D., founder and co-director of IVF New Jersey located in Somerset, Freehold, and Princeton Junction. “Probably 15 percent abandon their embryos. If they’re abandoned, we have a section within our embryo consent form as to what we should do with them.”
Most couples with surplus embryos from their first IVF cycle who desire more children will arrange for the embryo transfer within two to three years. Fertility specialists suggest embryos be used within five years of storage for the best chance of success.
William Kutteh, M.D., Ph.D., director of reproductive endocrinology and immunology at Kutteh Ke Fertility Associates of Memphis, estimates that at his clinic the ratio between keeping for own use and donation is 9 to 1. When possible, he tries to reduce the number of unwanted embryos. “If a couple initially decides to destroy excess embryos, we try to counsel the couple to fertilize fewer eggs so that fewer embryos are left in limbo,” he says.