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Handling surplus embryos in fertility clinics

Ethical concerns about
discarding surplus embryos

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In order to understand why the surplus embryos represent a serious concern to some people, it is necessary to study the basics of human personhood, the activities of the pro-life community, and procedures performed in fertility clinics:

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When does personhood begin?

No consensus exists about when human life becomes a human person.

Human life can be defined as any living entity that contains human DNA. Thus, each adult or child skin cell, spermatozoa, an ovum, a just-fertilized ovum, a pre-embryo which consists of a group of identical stem cells, an embryo which consists of differentiated cells, a fetus, a newborn, and even a human cancer are all forms of human life. But human life is not necessarily considered to be a human person by everyone; in many cases it is not even regarded as particularly valuable.

bulletMost pro-choicers believe that the transition from human life to human personhood is achieved part way through pregnancy, or perhaps at birth. Thus, the value and status of an pre-embryo lies in its ability for future development into a human person, if it is given the proper environment. A pre-embryo is respected because of its future potential, but is not yet assigned the status of a human person. It is seen as one step beyond that of an ovum or spermatozoa towards personhood. Some view it as a collection of live, human cells containing human DNA -- much like a microscopic piece of adult skin.

People are not usually concerned about the loss human DNA posed by tens of millions of spermatozoa in a single male ejaculation, or the rejection by a fertile woman's body of an unfertilized egg approximately once every four weeks. So also, many pro-choice person do not assign major importance to pre-embryos. The existence of hundreds of thousands of frozen pre-embryos in fertility clinics is thus of little concern to them -- at least in comparison to other moral issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia, child abuse, etc.
 
bulletPro-lifers generally regard the start of human personhood as occurring during or shortly after the process of conception. A strict pro-life position would thus regard all of the following as possibly causing the murder of human person(s):
bulletInsertion of an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD). This generally prevents fertilization of ova, but can in some instances change the environment of the uterus to bar the "implantation of a fertilized egg." 1
bulletEmergency contraception (a.k.a. the Morning-After Pill) which generally prevents ovulation or conception. In rare instances, it can also prevent the implantation of an already-fertilized egg.
bulletMedically induced abortions, Vacuum aspiration abortions, surgical abortions, or RU-486, an abortifacient medication.
bulletDiscarding unwanted, "surplus" pre-embryos in fertility clinics, and allowing them to die.
bulletHarvesting the stem cells from a pre-embryo, and thus causing its death.
Many pro-lifers look at the inventory of frozen embryos in a fertility clinic as a potential adoption facility. Some would view the harvesting of stem cells as ethically equivalent to Nazi medical experimentations during the Holocaust. Some view any discarding of embryos to be multiple murder.

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Primary pro-life activities:

Although IUDs cause tens of millions of deaths of fertilized embryos each year in North America -- many more than the approximately 1.2 million surgical abortions --  little pro-life activity has focused on the use of IUDs. There is little if any mention in the news of pro-lifers picketing factories where IUDs are manufactured. The Roman Catholic Church opposes the use of IUDs, the discarding of surplus embryos, in-vitro fertilizations, and artificial insemination. Fundamentalist and other evangelical faith groups also oppose IUDs and discarding surplus embryos. However they are much less vocal about it than are Catholics. But Christians generally invest much less effort into combating these devices and procedures than they invest into anti-abortion clinic activities. Yet, in their eyes, the former result in the murder of many more human beings than do the latter.

The number of embryos that have been discarded or will be abandoned in fertility clinics numbers in the hundreds of thousands, while the number of embryos that have been killed to extract their stem cells numbers in the hundreds. Yet much more effort is expended fighting embryonic stem cell research than opposing fertility clinics. We have never seen any coverage in the media of pro-lifers picketing fertility clinics. The balance seems to be way off.

The main pro-life efforts have been aimed at reducing or eliminating the production of embryonic stem cells, and limiting women's access to:

bullet

Emergency contraception,

bullet

Surgical abortions, and

bullet

RU-486 abortion pills.

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Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Intra-Uterine Device," Sex-Ed 101; Hoboken Family Planning, at: http://www.sex-ed101.com/

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 Home> Morality> Stem Cell Research> Handling surplus embryos> here

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Copyright © 2002 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-SEP-25
Latest update: 2010-JAN-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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