The Fertility Dilemma: Frozen Embryos

Updated: Mar. 27, 2009 at 7:57 AM CDT
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By Britney Glaser - bio | email

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - They are forgotten or abandoned - half a million embryos sit frozen in storage facilities across the country.

Last year, there were over 130,000 in vitro fertilization cycles performed, or procedures that join the egg and sperm together to create embryos inside a lab. In each of these cycles, multiple embryos are produced for a couple, which brings the fertility dilemma over the fate of those "leftover" embryos to a decision caught between science and life.

15 percent of couples in the U.S. struggle with infertility. In the late 70s, when fertility issues were first starting to take off, laws began popping up across the country to "control" how far science could go when it came to creating life - and what could be done with this potential life.  Dr. Steven Taylor with The Fertility Institute in New Orleans says, "Once it became more common on a national basis, there were people who felt like this needed to be in some way regulated."

In 1986, Louisiana took a dramatic step by passing the most stringent laws in the nation pertaining to embryos.  "It's a law that bestows upon an embryo the rights of a juridical person," says Dr. Taylor, "and this simply means whoever is in control of it must give it a good opportunity at life at some point."

This Louisiana law is the only one of its kind in the country that defines an embryo as a juridical person and a biological human being with certain rights.  Dr. John Storment with Fertility and Women's Health Center of LA says under this set of laws, a viable embryo may not be intentionally destroyed.  "We are the only state and the only governing body in the world that prevents any embryo from being discarded if it's a viable embryo," says Dr. Storment.

This complex issue can be understood more easily by looking at this breakdown: the average couple undergoing an IVF cycle will have between 5 and 10 eggs fertilized. No more than two of these embryos will be transferred to the woman's uterus, which leaves between 3 and 8 embryos with an unknown future.  "If you have extra embryos," says Dr. Storment, "every viable embryo must be cryo-preserved or frozen."

Once the embryos are frozen, Louisiana couples have three options: thaw them for future implantation, donate them through embryo adoption or keep them frozen indefinitely. The 49 other states have two extra options: donate the embryos for scientific research or discard them.

While Drs. Storment and Taylor agree that Louisiana's statute on human embryos is well-intentioned, they are both facing the issue of a growing stock of frozen embryos. Embryologist Adele Potts gave me a tour of The Fertility Institute where 7,000 frozen embryos are in storage.

"We have some old embryos," Adele told me, "we have some from the late 80s.  The patient, she probably won't come back for those."

And that's where science, the law and morality come to create a confusing reproductive landscape. What if the couple doesn't want more children?  Embryo adoption means that their children's full biological siblings will be raised by another family.  That has left thousands of couples choosing to do nothing, their offspring sitting frozen in storage facilities.

"They must come and be responsible and come and claim their embryos," says Dr. Storment, "something has to be done about it and so the best option is to use an aggressive approach and get patients to claim their embryos."

If these parents do not come forward to decide the fate of these frozen embryos, it's certain that the only future they will be legally granted is frozen in tubes.

*It's this Louisiana law governing embryos that keeps our state out of the embryonic stem cell research debate.