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Do You Know Where Your Embryos Are? A Solution for Abandoned Embryos

Dr. Gleicher discusses what happens after a family attempts to get pregnant and has leftover embryos in storage. When the owners of an embryo do not respond to communications for 5 years or more, the embryo is considered "abandoned" and can then be discarded by the storing center. CHR proposes the creation of non-profit embryo banks where the abandoned embryos can be used for scientific research that would advance infertility treatment technology.

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Do you know where your embryos are? That may seem like a strange question to ask but it is a really serious question for IVF centers. A large number of embryos in practically all IVF centers are abandoned and by that we mean that families who try to get pregnant and usually did get pregnant had leftover embryos frozen and simply have given up on them. They don't respond to attempts to reach them from IVF centers and most IVF centers, like CHR, have criteria by which they determine when embryos are "abandoned." Usually it takes a lot for embryos to be declared "abandoned." For example, it usually means that they have been abandoned for years--usually five years. It means that their owners the man and the woman who have produced those embryos have been attempted to be contacted and that those contacts failed. And contacts had to be made in various ways-- by registered letter, by phone calls, etc. In other words there are increasing numbers of embryos in IVF centers, like CHR, which nobody knows who they belong to. Their legal owners have abandoned them, which under current guidelines in the profession at least in the U.S., allows IVF centers to discard of those embryos. Ethical disposal of such embryos is perfectly legal--indeed it is recommended by some organizations. But the truth is that IVF centers, which have usually fought very hard to create those embryos are quite hesitant to dispose of them and so they accumulate. I had the opportunity together with professor Kaplan, who is a professor at NYU, to recently write an article which just appeared in "Nature Biotechnology," where we tried to address this point. And the argument that he, who by profession is an ethicist-- a medical ethicist, we're making the point that just keeping them frozen and/or even disposing them is really not the most ethical thing to do. Instead, we suggested in our article that these embryos be opened up for use in IRB-approved serious research projects. By "be approved," we mean by institutional-review-board-approved research. In other words, research that is important, that has depth, and that has been evaluated by experts. That is currently not permitted. Indeed, our professional guidelines in the field of infertility and other guidelines prohibit the use of abandoned embryos and so they continue to accumulate. We have proposed that special embryo banks be created for such embryos after hopefully guidelines change and such embryos will be free to be used for serious research. Such embryo banks-- hopefully not-for-profit organizations-- would then distribute those embryos to research laboratories which have been vetted, which have to submit research proposals that are IRB approved, and they would then be given access to those embryos. Many very important research laboratories all over the country and overseas are lacking human embryos for research. So, what we in our article therefore ask is, "What is more ethical? Is it more ethical to keep those embryos forever? Frozen or dispose of them? Or wouldn't it be more ethical to use them to the betterment of mankind? to the cure of diseases? to the better understanding of human embryology? Both professor Caplan, and I very strongly feel and that such a use of abandoned embryos would be a much more ethical way to go. We hope you agree.

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