Couples who do IVF are often faced with the agonizing question of what to do with their leftover embryos: discard them, give them to research, leave them in storage indefinitely—or let them find a new home
What do you do when you undergo in-vitro fertilization, conceive a child and find yourself left with extra embryos? One Oregon couple kept theirs in the freezer for 19 years after having a set of twins via IVF, in case they wanted to expand their family more someday. But, year after year, they didn’t move forward and instead paid their annual storage bill of several hundred dollars. Finally, they decided to give their four remaining embryos to Kelly Burke, 45, a single woman from Virginia. Two were thawed and transferred to Burke’s uterus, and she’s now a mom to smiley 9-month-old Liam James.
This story is remarkable on many levels. First, the embryo that became Liam is believed to be one of the oldest ever that was thawed after being frozen for so long. His siblings who were conceived at the same time are now college age. Second, the way Liam came into this world is part of a growing trend of embryo donation that represents a promising solution to our national problem of hundreds of thousands of leftover IVF embryos languishing in storage.
As the use of IVF to treat infertility rises rapidly—more than 154,000 cycles were performed in 2011, compared with roughly 146,000 in 2010, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology—couples are often faced with the agonizing decision of what to do with their leftover embryos. Do they donate them, give them to research, discard them or leave them in storage indefinitely?
In theory, embryo donation seems like the ideal solution: You have embryos you don’t want. Other people desperately want them. But of course, it’s hard to for many couples to get past knowing that someone else would be raising their biological children (or their siblings unknowingly mating with them—a risk known as “accidental incest”).
One survey of more than 1,000 patients from nine U.S. fertility clinics who had extra embryos found that nearly 60% said they were “very unlikely” to donate them to another couple trying to have a baby; only 7% were “very likely” to consider this option. “It was the idea that their child was walking around, and they couldn’t ensure it was having a great life,” says lead author Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, an ob-gyn and associate director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “If they couldn’t raise that child, many felt that the responsible choice was to make sure they didn’t become children in someone else’s life. One woman told me, ‘I’d rather have them destroyed than born.’ ”
But more and more people are deciding to have them born into other families. In 2011, there were 1,019 transfer cycles from donated embryos, which is up from 933 cycles in 2010. More than one third of those led to the birth of at least one child, according to the Centers for Disease Control.