Science

Ethical Options for Unused, Unclaimed Embryos

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Madeleine Brand chats with Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, about the options that clinics face with frozen embryos that are not claimed or not used.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

On the front page of many newspapers today is a picture of President Bush holding a small baby. That baby and others at yesterday's photo op started off as frozen embryos.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The children here today remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo. Every embryo is unique and genetically complete, like every other human being. And each of us started out our life this way. These lives are not raw material to be exploited, but gifts.

BRAND: Those children have been dubbed `snowflakes' by opponents of embryonic stem cell research--snowflake because each embryo is unique, like a snowflake. University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan says adopting frozen embryos is a new idea.

Professor ARTHUR CAPLAN (University of Pennsylvania): Last time I looked, there had been about 70 adoption of embryos in the United States. So there have been cases where couples have adopted an embryo, but there are approximately 300,000 embryos frozen in the United States. So it isn't a very high percentage of couples that are willing to adopt someone else's embryo in pursuit of having a child. If you think about it, couples who are infertile are going through infertility treatment because they want to have a biological connection from both of them or hopefully one of them to any child that results. Adopting someone else's embryo is the equivalent of adopting, if you will, a child to whom you have no biological connection.

The other major problem with adopting embryos is, if you make 20 embryos in a dish and you put some aside, what you're doing is, you're putting aside the ones that don't look as good. And literally, embryologists will tell you, if you had 20 embryos and you're going to try and implant three or four inside a woman who wants a baby, you take the ones that don't look like they're growing normally or that have some other signs that maybe they're not as healthy. Going then to adopt embryos means you're sending people to a group of embryos that are frozen, that while they could potentially turn into people, their possibility for doing so might be significantly impaired.

BRAND: But given the problem that there are so many frozen embryos in the country and many of them abandoned, what do you propose as a solution?

Prof. CAPLAN: I think we should have a time limit on embryos that are not claimed. There's no point in freezing embryos past five or six years when the couple who made them does not want them anymore. So I would say at that point, you have three options. You should be saying to couples that make embryos in the United States, we will either destroy these embryos; if we have your permission, we'll make them available for research; or we'll put them up for adoption, and you tell us how you want them handled.

Right now what we do is we leave them in the freezer, and we leave their fate in the hands of the electric company. As long as there's power and the freezers run, they're there. But it's clear that the fate of the overwhelming majority of these embryos is going to be destruction.

BRAND: Art Caplan is a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks a lot.

Prof. CAPLAN: My pleasure.

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