Are you planning to build your family with IVF or gestational surrogacy? You may not realize that the process may create more embryos than you actually need to complete your family. Don’t get caught off guard! Before you start treatment, think carefully about what you plan to do with excess embryos. Many patients, religious organizations, bioethicists, and medical professionals have sincerely held beliefs about this decision.
It might feel easier to ignore the chance of excess embryos until your treatment is complete, but putting off this decision can be fraught with risk. You might not want to think of it, but there is a chance that you, a partner, or a donor could die or become incapacitated. Couples may also separate or divorce during treatments. While it’s impossible to consider every possibility, decisions on embryo disposition should be discussed before and throughout your fertility treatment. Patients often benefit from consulting with their clinic, counselor, attorney, religious leaders, and partners.
Here are a few of the most common options:
Embryo Donation involves the gifting of embryos for use by another family. You might hear this referred to as “Embryo Adoption” but it is legally a very different process than Adoption of children that were already born. Similar to egg and sperm donation, this embryo donation creates a situation in which a parent will be raising a child that is not genetically related to them. Everyone involved must be comfortable with this arrangement. Specifically, they should consider potential future contact with offspring and connection with genetic siblings (if any).
Embryo donation should only be done with the consent of all parties. This can become complicated when the embryos were created using donor gametes or if one party dies or becomes legally incapacitated. If you are considering embryos donation, contact an attorney. The best time to reach out is before you create your embryos – without the right consents in place, you might inadvertently give up this option.
Once family building is complete, some patients may choose to dispose of their remaining embryos. This generally involves allowing the clinic to thaw the embryos, without their use by any person. For some people, this is their preferred choice. For others, this decision is contrary to their religious or moral values. Whatever your opinion, it’s important to talk to an attorney who can help to ensure that your wishes will be respected. An experienced attorney will be able to help you create the contracts and consents that will document your intent.
Making a decision about what to do with embryos that you can’t personally use can feel overwhelming to some. Because of that, many fertility patients make a decision to put off the decision of what should be done with their remaining embryos. They may continue to pay the storage fees each year – which can certainly add up.
Unfortunately, some patients will intentionally or unintentionally abandon their embryos. They will stop paying for cryopreservation and become unreachable. Some clinics have reported rates of abandonment as high as 20%. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine has issued an ethics opinion allowing destruction of abandoned embryos after a reasonable period of time when patients cannot be reached with a reasonable effort.
Families may also choose to donate embryos for the purpose of scientific research or medical training. Embryo donation for research or training can feel like a middle-ground compromise. If this is your goal, talk to your clinic about what their options are. Scientific research using human embryos is often limited in time and scope, so you may actually find it difficult to identify a place that you can donate your embryos for scientific research. Clinics may also have programs using donated embryos to train their staff, but this is a very different goal than scientific research. Talk to your clinic to learn more about their options, but remember those choices can change with time and may not be the same when you are ready to donate.