Bioethics Blogs

What happens to the leftovers? Is compassionate transfer ethical?

by Katarina Lee

The Washington Post recently published an article discussing IVF and one woman’s journey in the creation of her child.[1] Unlike other articles that often focus on the process of IVF, Sarika Chawla highlighted an often forgotten and diminished aspect of IVF, the obligations to “left-over” embryos. Chawla discussed five options for these embryos: (1) destroy them; (2) donate them to medical research; (3) donate them to an infertile woman; (4) keep them frozen; and (5) engage in compassionate transfer. While Chawla did not address a sixth option in her article, it should be noted that there are also fertile women who will gestate “left-over” embryos out of a sense of moral and often religious obligation.

IVF not only poses financial and physical tolls on intended parent(s), but it places an enormous emotional burden on the parties involved. In the excitement and desire to have children, many individuals often over-look questions regarding “left-over” embryos. In any given round of IVF, several ovum are fertilized resulting in several embryos. While standards are consistently in flux, typically two embryos are transferred at a time. This leaves several frozen embryos as “back-up” if the previous transfers are unsuccessful. Many intended parent(s) choose not to address what will happen to the remaining embryos until after family completion, but by then they are left with embryos they often consider to be future children and siblings to their live-birth children. While the accurate number of frozen embryos is unknown due to lack of reporting requirements, in 2011, it was estimated that there were more than 600,000 in the US.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.