Deciding What to Do With Unused Embryos
I know that the last thing many people at the beginning of their infertility struggles ever think about is the possibility of having extra frozen embryos remaining after they finish treatment. Thinking about this possibility when you are busy praying that you will have any embryos at all, to say nothing of embryos left over when you finish treatment may feel like tempting fate. You should be so lucky to face such a “problem”, right?
I have the luxury of talking with people who have been just so “lucky”. For some the decision of what to do with their extra frozen embryos is not a big deal at all, but others are surprised by how hard this decision becomes. I think everyone involved—doctors and patients—should consider their options at the beginning, even if you later change your mind.
I learn best by example and I assume I’m not alone, so Creating a Family is recruiting folks who have faced this decision and will blog about it. If you’d rather remain anonymous, that’s OK too. Here’s the story of Paige, over at Baby Dust Diaries, and how she changed her mind after she had children from the same batch of embryos.
When I had my oocyte (egg) retrieval back in 2008 they harvested 29 eggs. Of those 17 fertilized. Of those 12 arrested by day 3 or 5 (stopped growing). That left me with 5. We transferred 2 fresh on day 3 – one was Aellyn. Asher and Boston were both frozen on that same day as 3-day embryos. They grew the remaining embryos to day 5 to see if we had any strong ones. We had one make it to blastocyst which was then frozen on day 5. In 2010 we thawed Asher and Boston, grew them to blastocyst (day 5) and transferred them. We have one remaining embryo in cryopreservation.
Having extra embryos is common in IVF. …Remember a “fresh” (egg retrieval) cycle is expensive and very hard on a woman’s body. Clinics want to get enough good embryos to freeze some. A frozen embryo transfer (like with my twins) is much easier and much cheaper than going through a full, fresh cycle again. …My point: freezing isn’t a bad thing. It can be a very life-giving technology.
The problem? There are often left over embryos.
Your Options for What to do with Your Extra Embryos
Couples have 4 choices when it comes to these extra embryos.
1. Have a bigger family than you planned and transfer them anyway. I’ll talk about this below.
2. Destroy the embryos – they are thawed and discarded as biowaste.
I include in this category a bizarre practice of some “pro-life” people where they intentionally transfer embryos in a non-fertile stage of a woman’s cycle. This is somehow seen as providing more “dignity” than discarding as biowaste. I feel this is absurd. And embryo implanted in a uterus without a lining has no chance of life. Yes, God creates life but he does it through the reproductive cycle he created. DUH. Using a uterus as a garbage can is just all kinds of stupid. Sorry. I call ‘em like I see ‘em.
3. Donate them to science.
Here they are also destroyed (they aren’t grown into some science fiction lab experiment) during use. Uses include training new embryologists and geneticists and stem cell research done to cure diseases like cancer and Parkinson and injuries like spinal column regeneration.
4. Donate them to another couple.
Sometimes this is called Embryo Adoption because it can be open or closed but it is not legally an adoption, but a tissue transfer like sperm or egg donation. The embryos are thawed and transferred to another couple hoping to achieve pregnancy. It is illegal in the US to pay for an embryo (or a live child) but sometimes donors are compensated for 1 year of storage costs. There are for-profit donor/recipient matching sites, private arrangements, and most clinics have a donation program.
…I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that cryopreservation costs the couple money each year. My clinic is under $500 but some are as high as $2000 per year.
Making the Decision
Trigger Warning: If you are currently struggling through infertility you may want to stop here. I’m going to “complain” about the “agonizing” decision of what to do with my “extra” embryos after having 3 live children. Yeah. I would have wanted to stab myself for saying that just a few short years ago too.
Our original plan was embryo donation/adoption. We liked the idea of helping another couple struggling as we were through infertility. We imagined having 6 or more extra embryos which would be impossible for us to continue family building with that many. Donation seemed like a wonderful option for us.
We never imagined two things: One, that we’d be 3 for 4 with IVF! I’ve transferred 4 embryos and had 3 children. That’s just…beyond luck. An embarrassment of riches. I was in tears when we only had 3 frozen because I thought it drastically limited the chance we’d have siblings. Oh to have my problems, right? Secondly, we now have only one frozen embryo.
How is that a problem? Well, first off, if you are looking for embryo donors you want at least two embryos. The cost alone makes adopting one embryo kind of silly. I’ve found that the general consensus is that people would not want my one embryo.
More importantly is how I feel about embryos. I think this is personal but, for me, those embryos are my children. I believe life starts at conception. That’s my baby girl in there (no, we don’t know the gender but I hate “it”) and I could never just destroy her, even for science. It feels like a part of my family. I guess if I had 15 embryos I’d feel less specifically attached but I don’t. I have one. One little potential-baby. One brother or sister to Aellyn, Asher, and Boston. I don’t know if God intends us to have a fourth child (and let’s face it to be 4 for 5 is just beyond imagining) but if he does I’m not going to turn away and not try to bring her home.
My biggest issue is the cost. We are on a tight budget now and the embryo transfer would cost $2000. If we don’t get pregnant I can think of lots of other uses for that money! Using it for the kids I have now. But I have to give her a chance at life. If it’s not meant to be then ok but I can’t not try.
What do you plan to do with your extra embryos if you have them? What option would feel best for you? While Paige didn’t have much use for “compassionate transfer” others might not agree. Check out this Creating a Family show on various thawing and discarding options, including compassionate transfer and thawing ceremonies.
P. S. If you are in the process of deciding and need resources to help, consider these from the friendly folks here at Creating a Family:
- Donate to another person for family building
- Donate to research
- Thaw and discard
- General resources for exploring options