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When it comes to 1 million frozen embryos, what is ethical?

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2 2013 3:50 p.m. MDT

Research associate Crystal Pacutin pulls a frozen vial of human embryonic stem cells at the University of Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008.

Paul Sancya, Associated Press

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The writer Paul Ford recently penned a first-person essay for Elle magazine with the headline “Determining the Fate of Frozen Embryos: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”

“No one knows exactly how many embryos are out there, in liquid nitrogen,” Ford wrote. “The low-end estimate is hundreds of thousands in the United States, but some people say as many as a million. It’s a pretty good business … (that) could come to something like $600 million a year in freezing."

After having twins, Ford and his wife struggled to decide what to do with the two frozen embryos they still had “on ice.” Ford outlined several options they considered: keep the embryos frozen (at a cost of $1,200 per year), destroy them, try to have more children, donate the fertilized eggs to scientific research or anonymously donate the embryos to an infertile woman.

In 2003 the global policy think tank RAND Corporation estimated that, as of 2002, “a total of 396,526 embryos have been placed in storage in the United States.”

Building off the RAND data, a 2006 article in Mother Jones magazine attempted to forecast the eventual impact of so many frozen embryos.

“This embryo glut is forcing many people to reconsider whatever they thought they thought about issues such as life and death and choice and reproductive freedom,” Liza Mundy wrote for Mother Jones. “… And so, far from going away, the accumulation of human embryos is likely to grow, and grow, and grow. And in growing, the embryo overstock is likely to change — or at least complicate — the way we collectively think about human life at its earliest stages, and morally what is the right thing to do with it.”

The PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” dedicated a 2010 segment to the ethical controversy around donating human embryos to stem cell research. In that report, Harvard Medical School ethics professor Louis Guenin and Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops advocated and opposed, respectively, such research.

Louis Guenin, Harvard Medical School ethicist: “It’s a biological fact that those embryos outside of a womb can’t mature beyond about two weeks. Knowing that, we have to take account for moral purposes of the duty of beneficence, the duty to come to the aid of those who suffer if we can do so without unreasonable burden.”

Richard Doerflinger, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “We are talking here about life, about a human life at a very, very early and undeveloped stage, but human life nonetheless. … When we are talking about stem cell research, we are talking about a way to destroy that life, cut it off at a certain stage for the benefit for others. We think that’s wrong to do that."

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

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