But finding a research laboratory that needed embryos five years ago was difficult, remembers the Washington D.C. resident who is also the president of the capital’s RESOLVE chapter. Miller finally read an article about research on PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore. Having undergone the painful and costly procedure of a triple CVS (chorionic villus sampling) on her triplet fetuses to check for genetic defects, she was convinced that helping to advance a genetic test that could be performed on IVF embryos prior to the transfer into the mother’s womb was a worthy cause. “I felt it was helping to save another woman from CVS after IVF–the pain, the price, and the possible trauma of having to abort,” Miller explains.
It took about 20 volunteers to babysit the then 7-month-old triplets for a day while the Millers drove around the Washington Beltway to deliver their frozen embryos to the university. The embryos rode in the back seat, stored in a tank that looked like R2-D2, the robot from Star Wars. “I didn’t view them as potentially my children,” says Miller, who got pregnant after a second round of IVF, using four of her originally seven frozen embryos. “I viewed them as something that was precious to me–that I wanted to make good use of. I felt I had done something purposeful–that something good had come out of a very long and difficult process.”
Five years later, most fertility clinics offer couples the option of donating their embryos to science. But choosing that route doesn’t automatically guarantee that stem cell researchers get to profit from that generous gift. In fact, many clinics offer their patients this option even when they’re not actually affiliated with a research lab.
“We have a relationship with Rockefeller University [in Manhattan]. Any embryos that are frozen can be donated to stem cell research and they are shipped over to Rockefeller,” says IVF New Jersey’s Dr. Treiser. But she cautions that not all IVF programs have established a relationship with an academic institution that is doing stem cell research.
Check your clinic’s paperwork carefully to see if it mentions destroying your embryos if no research program or project is available. Ask precise questions about how your surplus embryos will be used.
Thawing and Destroying The Embryos
Euphemistically, this option is often referred to as “thawing without transfer” (or “non-viable thawing”). The issue, however, goes deeper than semantics. Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., chair of the department of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and former chair of the advisory committee to the United Nations on human cloning, has developed his own ethical ranking for the available options for couples with “extra” embryos.
Donation to an infertile couple is Caplan’s number one choice. “It’s a morally good thing to help others have children,” he says.
Donating to science is second most “morally desirable.”
But that doesn’t mean that the last option, destroying the embryos, is immoral. “It is morally acceptable to simply destroy the leftover embryos,” he asserts.
Ultimately, though, morality is a matter of individual conscience. What would Caplan do if faced with that choice? “I would put them up for scientific research,” he admits, choosing his second “most moral” option. “I’m just not comfortable with someone else raising my genetic offspring.”
Thousands of couples across the U.S. are struggling with this question. In the meantime, Jeff and Jacqui Worthley’s recipient couple decided not to try again with the Worthleys’ embryos. And the couple is left wondering whether any of their embryos will ever grow into babies.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of Conceive Magazine.