There is no doubt that embryo freezing and storage have ethical drawbacks, which we have evaluated in-depth in a special report (see HERE). Recent news gives the possibility of extending its storage from 10 to 50 years, which seems to make this situation more critical (see HERE).
Fate of unclaimed embryos
On the other hand, an article published in the prestigious journal Fertility and Sterility, (July 1, 2021) analyzes in-depth the situation, very frequently, of abandoned embryos, given that current techniques produce a greater amount of embryos than those used. This increases the number of frozen embryos stored by clinics, which have seen, in many cases, their storage capacity exceeded (see HERE). The aforementioned study deals with a topic of great bioethical significance, such as the fate of unclaimed embryos, referring to the new provisions of the Bioethics Committee of the United States of America that replace those of its previous report published in 2013.
The regulation establishes that, in the absence of written provisions by the individuals legally responsible for the embryos, after a reasonable time and after trying to locate their biological parents, said embryos may not be used for transfer or research, for which they must be removed from storage and thawed, that is, eliminated. Instead, if there is written consent from patients, they can be used for reproductive purposes or for research.
The article continues with an ethical consideration and says that the will of the patient is the one that prevails and that it must be respected within what is “practicable and within the law”, stating that clinics cannot be responsible for continuing to provide the services when patients have not been able to be contacted “within the deadlines established by the clinics”, which must be a reasonable period of time that allows patients to be found and that they can make a decision about the destination of their embryos.
The article also analyzes other possible circumstances, for example, when patients want to change their initial consent, if they die, etc., this issue takes on singular importance given the measures that are trying to postpone the maximum cryopreservation time up to 50 years us we say above.
The article continues by emphasizing the convenience of obtaining a written disposition of the patients regarding the fate of the supernumerary embryos from the first moment of treatment. The law in the United States of America does not provide a maximum time to keep unclaimed cryopreserved embryos. In this regard, the authors of this report say that this lack creates legal uncertainty and affirms that it is “evident” that clinics are not obliged to keep them frozen indefinitely for reasons of cost and space. In this sense, the Committee rejects the possibility, defended by many, of using these supernumerary embryos for transfer or for medical research.
The most difficult question to answer is what happens when the will expressed by the patients is not to discard the embryos in any case, but contact with them has been lost. The clinics, anticipating these circumstances, protect their interests with a clause that stipulates that if patients lose contact with the clinic (mainly they stop paying for the cryopreservation of supernumerary embryos), which has repeatedly tried to locate them, it is understood that what was agreed of not to discard the embryos will be without effect.
On this point we must make an ethical evaluation: The capacity of clinics to discard these embryos, under the conditions mentioned, leaves them totally unprotected and we believe that donating these human embryos for reproductive purposes is the only possible way to keep them alive and prevent their destruction. In any case, this solution has objective bioethical problems, since it could justify increasing the production of supernumerary embryos to be later transferred to whoever requested them.