Extra Embryos: Destroy or Donate to Research?

One of the hottest debates in bioethics has been the use of human embryos in stem cell research. Infertility patients find themselves in the middle of this debate. Patients that use in vitro fertilization often have many frozen embryos in storage and must decide what to do with the embryos once they are done having children.

New research from Anne Lyerly of the Duke University Medical Center and Ruth Faden of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics indicates that patients see destroying their embryos or donating them to other infertile couples as unacceptable options. The patients find it especially uncomfortable to think of their genetic embryo developing into another couples child. However, these patients widely support donating their excess embryos to research, including developing embryonic stem cell lines.

Other studies have shown that 66 percent of the American public supports donating embryos for stem cell research. This support runs across all religious, political, and socioeconomic lines. The percentage of infertility patients that support donating of their frozen embryos for medical research or stem cell research is about the same.

In 2001, President George W. Bush restricted federally-funded embryonic stem cell research in the United States to 20 preexisting stem cell lines. No new embryonic stem cell lines can be produced using federal research funds. However, the limited cell lines have prompted concern from the scientific community that there just aren’t enough cell lines for safe, effective research. The frozen embryos remaining from infertility treatments are not created for research purposes and could potentially get around the federal funding restrictions. They may also solve a moral dilemma in the debate over how stem cells are made for research.

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