News  Frozen in limbo

Excess embryos in Canadian clinics create ethical dilemmas

Debate has been sparked on ethical ways to deal with the thousands of embryos across the country that lie in a state of suspended animation, frozen in reproductive clinics.

Existing in a state of limbo – not quite alive but certainly with the potential to become so – these embryos have the capacity to survive for decades in cold storage. Currently, Canada’s surplus of embryos exists without any national regulation controlling or keeping track of their proliferation.

No one knows the exact number of frozen embryos in cold storage in Canada. Many of these embryos are “orphans,” and no longer have any connection to their genetic parents. Best estimates on the number of embryos in existence come from speaking to individual clinics.

As Simon Phillips, lab director at the Ovo Fertility Clinic in Montreal told The Daily, their clinic alone keeps over 2,500 embryos in their freezers. Genetic parents have three options regarding their extra embryo: disposing of them, donating them to research, or giving them up for adoption.

Ovo Clinic began offering the adoption of embryos with the genetic parents’ consent over two years ago. Most parents choose to donate their unwanted embryos to research or have them destroyed rather than give them up for adoption.

“Many people hesitate to choose the adoption option because, on some level, they still feel that these are their children,” said Phillips.

There is, however, a growing problem in addressing to whom the orphan embryos belong and who has the right to decide their fate.

The decision to offer anonymous adoptions of unused embryos has come with a slew of ethical criticisms. Most criticism is centered around whether embryos have rights and whether these rights are violated when they are given to parents with whom they share no genetic ties. Concerns over whether these children should be allowed to find out the identity of their genetic parents have also been voiced.

Clinics across Canada have begun to address this problem by turning to embryo adoption programs. This type of third party procreation entails parents unable to have a child of their own adopting an abandoned embryo to which they have no genetic ties.

Toronto hospital Mount Sinai is one of the first to offer a carefully monitored anonymous embryo donation program through its Centre for Fertility and Reproductive Health.

“Everyone who partakes in the program is made fully aware of the social and ethical issues surrounding their decision. Psychological and legal counselling is necessary when dealing with donor eggs or a gestational carrier, and both partners are screened first for infectious diseases,” said an administrative assistant at the Toronto centre who wished to remain anonymous.

Other centres have followed suit, including Vancouver’s Genesis Fertility Centre and Calgary’s Regional Fertility Program, where 75 to 100 children have already been born through adopted embryos.