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US patients debate future of frozen embryos

5 February 2007
Appeared in BioNews 394

US patients using fertility services are facing a dilemma over the future of their spare embryos. Legally only the patients themselves are entitled to make the decision concerning the future use of their embryos, which currently comprises of four choices: to have them destroyed, donate them to other couples, continue to store them indefinitely or donate them to medical research.

A 2003 study by RAND Corp estimated in 2003 that there were 400,000 embryos stored in 450 US fertility clinics. Lucinda Veeck Gosden, director of embryology at the IVF clinic at Weill-Connell Medical School in New York, says that 54 per cent of the clinic's patients who have finished their families ask to have their embryos destroyed, 43 per cent donate them to basic science unrelated to stem cells, and 3 per cent offer them to other fertile couples.

Embryologist Ingrid Jansson and her husband embody the ethical debate that surrounds the future use of redundant embryos. They have had a son through IVF and are now at odds over what to do with their spare embryos. Jansson, who volunteers for the Stem Cell Resource, which helps fertility patients donate their leftover embryos for research, would like to donate her own spare embryos for this purpose. Her husband, Jon Gardner, who is Catholic, disagrees. He believes that dismantling their embryos would amount to the destruction of life. The confusing legal landscape only adds to the difficulty of the decision-making process for such patients.

There is currently no federal support for stem cell research, which has slowed developments in an area where scientists believe that these 'master' cells derived from embryos may enable them to develop treatments for diabetes, Alzheimer's and other diseases. Research continues using adult or amniotic stem cells, but scientists argue they are an inadequate substitute for embryonic stem cell, which have the potential to develop into any cell in the body.

President Bush approved federal funding for research on 78 existing stem cell lines obtained from destroyed embryos on 9 August 2001, banning the use of funding for lines developed after that date. Evan Snyder, director of stem cell research at the private Burnham Institute in the US, says that most federal stem cell lines are inadequate, because their completion was rushed to meet the President's deadline. There are now just 22 lines remaining in the US that, having been nourished with material from lab mice, cannot be utilised for humans.

The Democrat-led Congress initiated a bill in its first week of sitting, which would provide federal funding for stem cell lines derived from fertility clinic embryos. The House of Representatives voted 253-174 to approve the bill, which is likely to be passed by the Senate next month. President Bush has already vetoed a similar bill in July 2006, and has vowed to do the same again. It is doubtful whether Congress could raise the two-thirds majority required to overturn the President's veto.

Every embryo is a stem cell debate
USA Today |  30 January 2007
Patients Debate What To Do With Embryos After Fertility Treatments, USA Today Reports
Kaiser Network |  30 January 2007
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