Moral concerns with fertility clinics that 
dispose of excess human embryos

by Dr. Patrick H. Young

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Letter to the Editor of the Lancaster Eagle Gazette
Published November 4, 2004 at this link:

The healing potential afforded by stem-cell research has sparked a parallel debate about the ethical standing of excess human embryos originating from InVitro fertilization. Due to the popularity of InVitro fertilization as a tool for persistently infertile couples, a significant stockpile of excess human embryos exists that may never be utilized for their intended purpose. Those who do not consider the willful destruction of human embryos as ethically questionable have proposed that these excess embryos can be used to supply researchers with a source of therapeutically cloned stem cells.

However, this proposal has also raised an intriguing question about the regulatory oversight of human embryos created by InVitro fertilization clinics. That is, what are the existing policies in place at fertility clinics to manage these excess human embryos? The results of a survey inquiring about human embryo disposal procedures by 217 InVitro fertilization clinics was recently published in the Journal of Politics and the Life Sciences.

Of all the clinics in this survey, an overwhelming majority reported that they consistently created excess human embryos, while a small minority reported refusing to create extra embryos, citing religious and ethical reasons.

Of the clinics creating excess embryos, 84 percent were willing to dispose of the surplus, while 16 percent would not. Clinics refusing to dispose of excess embryos might hand them over to the couple that originally had them created, or present them to another infertile couple, or keep them cryogenically frozen indefinitely.

The vast majority of the clinics who were willing to dispose of the extra embryos considered them nothing more than biological waste. A small minority reported performing a funeral-like ceremony during their disposal that would include a prayer.

If we conclude that the use of human embryos in stem-cell research is a morally bankrupt concept, then it is equally reprehensible for fertility clinics to dispose of excess human embryos without that same regard for the sanctity of human life. Unlike most medical facilities, fertility clinics today go largely unregulated. This study is a classic demonstration of negative consequences resulting from too little regulatory oversight. 

Dr. Patrick H. Young

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