ICBioethics Blog 

Fate of Frozen Embryos: Whose Hands are They Really in Anyway?

Yes, thank you Sofia Vergara and Nick Loeb for bringing public attention to an often underconsidered scenario in in vitro fertilization (IVF) –whether you meant to or not.


What does happen to the remaining frozen embryos? Whether surplus ones after successful conception or after plans have simply changed? (You know, like you thought it was a good idea at the time, but . . . .) I suppose that depends on how one views the embryo: as an individual with inherent value or as a mass of cells that have yet to develop an identity.

Becoming a parent comes with many responsibilities, and becoming a parent via IVF presents some unique ones. What happens to the remaining embryos should be decided prior to beginning the process. Not considering this is irresponsible.

The options are limited:

1. Keep them frozen (the Loeb/Vergara situation). Couples must consider whether they intend the surplus embryo freezing to be a temporary or long-term plan. If the plan is long-term, who will continue the payment for the storage (approximately $500-1,000/yr.)? (And how long is reasonable: decades, maybe longer?) Then what? Most states treat embryos as personal property, assets of the estate. So, if the owners die and do not specify otherwise, their heirs will inherit the embryos. That could be quite a surprise!

2. Donate them to another recipient. More decisions: should the donation be anonymous? Would the children of the couple donating and the couple receiving the embryo know of genetic siblings? Though this seems to me to be the best option, the absence of law in this area creates a major obstacle to embryo adoption.

3. Donate to research. This is a very polarizing topic. On one side, individuals believe it would further scientific knowledge; the other side firmly believes it is immoral to do so, akin to giving carte blanche on human experimentation.

Currently embryos have no legal standing, although it has been possible to create them in vitro for years. Therefore, much rests on how the IVF couple resolves the issue and on their beliefs regarding when human life begins – and that is based more on belief or worldview than on science.

Mitch Gennuso