The results of two related studies undertaken in the US show that a high proportion of infertile couples are in favour of their 'spare' embryos being used for research, whilst over half would advocate theirs being sold to help other couples. Researchers surveyed 1,350 infertile women at a fertility centre in Illinois to gauge their opinions about what should happen to the cryopreserved embryos not used in their own treatment. 'Infertility patients are the gatekeepers of these leftover embryos, it is important to understand their opinions', said the lead author of the study Dr Tarun Jain, assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility and clinical IVF director at the University of Illinois.
Published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, the results of the survey show that of the 636 respondents who answered definitively, 73 per cent said that leftover embryos should be used for stem cell research. Dr Jain attributed this to the 'altruistic' nature of most infertility patients, saying that 'it makes sense that they would try to advance medicine and help others'. Those least likely to support donation to research were patients younger than 30, those who were single, and those who were less wealthy.
The only current alternatives for embryos leftover after treatment are that they are saved for future attempts at pregnancy, donated to other couples, or discarded. Of the 588 surveyed who gave a definitive answer, 56 per cent declared that selling embryos to other couples should be allowed. In a climate of high demand from infertility patients who cannot conceive using their own eggs, the authors of the study suggest that buying 'pre-existing' embryos might be a more cost effective option than relying on donated eggs. However, selling embryos is at present considered ethically unacceptable in the US, as it is in the UK.
A similar survey conducted last year by Johns Hopkins and Duke University in the US revealed that a 60 per cent majority of 1,020 infertile couple asked would prefer their embryos to be donated to embryonic stem cell research rather than be discarded or donated to other couples. It was estimated in 2002 that around 400,000 'leftover' embryos were in storage at US fertility clinics.
'Given the potential for a significant increase in the commoditising of spare embryos, medical societies and policy makers may need to pay close attention to this controversial area', concluded Dr Jain and his co-author Stacey Missmer.