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Choices are few for couples with leftover embryos

December 4, 2008 | 11:46 am

Embryo1As many as 500,000 frozen embryos are in storage in the United States. While some will be used for in vitro fertilization, many others belong to couples who have completed their families or have abandoned infertility treatment. A study from the foremost researcher on frozen embryos published today reveals the anguish many of these couples have about disposition of their embryos.

Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, an obstetrician/gynecologist and bioethicist at Duke University, has studied the problem of leftover frozen embryos for several years. The study published online today in the journal Fertility and Sterility is her largest survey of infertility patients -- more than 1,000. The survey found that these women feel responsible for the fate of their embryos but are dissatisfied with the choices they have. More than half are opposed to donating their embryos to other women for implantation. Twenty percent said they would likely leave their embryos frozen "forever."

"Parents care very much about what happens to their embryos," said Lyerly in a news release. "But that doesn't mean they want them to become children. Our study shows that many feel they have to do what they can to prevent their embryo from becoming a child."

The study comes at a time when several states have introduced measures that would designate frozen embryos as "persons" with legal rights or allow abandoned embryos to be adopted by another couple. The issues were described in a package of stories published earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times. Lyerly notes in her study that many families would like to have more options for disposition of their embryos. Two such options that are rarely discussed or offered involve implanting the leftover embryos in the woman's uterus during a time when she is unlikely to become pregnant or allowing a couple to have a ritual disposal ceremony of the embryos. "These may be the answers to many patients' desires as they allow the embryos to pass in a way that seems more respectful to them," she said.

Infertility clinics should develop detailed guidelines for informing couples of the likelihood of having leftover, frozen embryos, the options for disposition and how patients' feelings about disposition may change over time.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: A petri dish containing embryos. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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