400,000 Human Embryos Frozen in U.S. Number at Fertility Clinics Is Far Greater Than Previous Estimates, Survey Finds
Comments on article by Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D.

comments Irving
May 9, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

Washington Post

400,000 Human Embryos Frozen in U.S. Number at Fertility Clinics Is Far Greater Than Previous Estimates, Survey Finds

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2003; Page A10

The freezers of U.S. fertility clinics are bulging with about 400,000 frozen human embryos, a number several times larger than previous estimates, according to the first national count ever done, released today.

The unexpectedly high number -- by far the largest population of frozen human embryos in the world -- is the byproduct of a booming fertility industry whose success depends on creating many embryos but using only the best. Although most of the embryos are being held for possible use by the couples who wanted them, a large proportion will never be needed, experts said.

[[Why should we be surprised? Moral relativism and the free (libertine) market have always made great bedfellows. For those familiar with the early history of IVF and bioethics, the situation in which we find ourselves today was inevitable.

At the same time that bioethicists were redefining early human embryos and fetuses as not human beings or not human persons -- and simultaneously proposing a federal "bioethics" that was essentially relativistic (as all utilitarianism is) -- the U.S. was importing a new business franchise from Australia -- In Vitro Fertilization Clinics. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the aim for them was never curing infertility or debilitating human diseases. The aim was to make money with the "left over" or "surplus" human embryos for research.

Just take a look at these words of wisdom by H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Bioethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), where he lays out the theoretical foundations for a black market with these human "commodities":

"One also owns what one produces. One might think here of both animals and young children. Insofar as they are the products of the ingenuity or energies of persons, they can be possessions. There are, however, special obligations to animals by virtue of the morality of beneficence that do not exist with regard to things. Such considerations, as well as the fact that young children will become persons, limit the extent to which parents have ownership rights over their young children. However these limits will be very weak with regard to ownership rights in human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses that will not be allowed to develop into persons, or with regard to lower vertebrates, where there is very little sentience.

For example, it would appear very plausible that plants, microbes, and human zygotes can be fashioned as products, and be bought and sold as if they were simply things. In contrast, strong claims of ownership would cease, as children become persons and sui juris, self-possessing. This latter moral issue also arises with regard to normal adult non-human higher primates. It is much more plausible to suspect that higher non-human primates are in possession of themselves than to suspect that such is the case with even one-year-old human infants. At the point that an entity becomes self-conscious, the morality of mutual respect would alienate the property rights of the parents over the children or other animals (129-130). ... These reflections can be encapsulated in what one may term the principle of ownership. This principle will be central to understanding the roles of public and private funding in health care, as well as the rights of physicians to exempt themselves from the constraints of national health services. Owning private property, insofar as such private ownership exists, will always permit patients merely to buy around the established system. So, too, having the right to own one's talents will permit physicians to sell around the constraints of the system. This can be tendentiously summarized as the basic right of persons to the black market." (pp. 133-134)

The mechanism by which this was to be accomplished was laid out embarrassingly clearly by Winston Duke in his article, "The New Biology" [Reason Magazine (August 1972), pp. 4-11]: eliminate a realistic philosophical definition of "person" and substitute a rationalist philosophical one:

"It is quite possible that the advances in human biology in the remainder of the twentieth century will be remembered as the most significant scientific achievement of the animal species known as Homo sapiens. But in order to become a part of medical history, parahuman reproduction and human genetic engineering must circumvent the recalcitrance of an antiquated culture. ... Fit the parts of the puzzle together: nucleus transplant, test tube growth to blastocyst and uterus implant -- the result is clonal man. ... An Eugenic Age is just around the corner. ... Under scientific management, the result can be human parts-farming: the methodical production of precious organs such as eyes, hands, livers, hearts, and lungs. ... The foremost philosophical problem presented by the new biology is semantical: What is a human being? ...Humanity per se is based on cognitive abilities. A philosophy of reason will define a human being as one which demonstrates self-awareness, volition and rationality. Thus it should be recognized that not all men are humans. The severely mentally retarded, victims of lobotomies, the fetus, blastocysts, androids, etc., are not human and therefore obtain no human rights. ... It would seem ... to be more "inhumane" to kill an adult chimpanzee than a newborn baby since the chimpanzee has greater mental awareness. Murder cannot logically apply to a life form with less mental power than a primate. ... It certainly follows that the practice of abortion is not immoral. And it is furthermore conclusive that experiments with fetal material and the engineering of non-thinking Homo sapiens tissues are not immoral. A clear definition of humanity in terms of mental acuity, rather than physical appearance, should be encouraged. And libertarians should continue to defend as absolute the prerogative of humans to conduct their own lives independent of societal norms, whether that conduct involves euthanasia, suicide, abortion, organ transplant, or ownership of genetic material. ... Likewise, the incentive for developing a rational philosophical framework including a psychology of self-esteem will be magnified. ... [I]t would be increasingly obvious that a philosophy of reason is needed to meet the test of present day living, and that it is the only orientation able to readily absorb the ever developing spectrum of scientific discovery."

And so it was done -- with bioethics. See again the efforts in that direction by H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., in "Viability and the Use of the Fetus", in Tom L. Beauchamp and Terry P. Pinkard (eds.), Ethics and Public Policy: An Introduction to Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983, pp. 299-230 [reprinted from W.B. Bondeson, H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., S. F. Spicker, and Daniel Winship (eds.), Abortion and the Status of the Fetus (Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel Publishing Company, 1982)]:

"Persons in the strict sense are moral agents who are self-conscious, rational, and capable of free choice and of having interests. This includes not only normal adult humans, but possibly extraterrestrials with similar powers. " ... It is for these reasons that the value of zygotes, embryos, and fetuses is to be primarily understood in terms of the values they have for actual persons [pace bioethics lawyer John Robertson]. Zygotes, fetuses, and embryos do not have the rich inward life of adult mammals. ... However, one must remember that the sentience of a zygote, embryo, or fetus is much less than that of an adult mammal. One might even develop a suggestion of the natural theologian Charles Hartshorne so as to argue that from the perspective of the Deity the intrinsic value of a human fetus will be less than that of an adult normal member of some other mammalian species. (pp. 112-113).

[[For a detailed study of how these perspectives and purposes fit into a much larger historical framework, please see my article, "What is 'bioethics'?" attached to this e-mail (in rich text format) -- DNI]]

Now, please continue reading the rest of the article on 400,000 frozen human beings and consider the hard cold implications of the above history (emphases mine):

That reality, and the sheer scope of the phenomenon, has reignited a debate among scientists, theologians and parents about the moral standing of those microscopic entities. The question is philosophical, but the implications are practical. With clinics concerned about accidental meltdowns and insurance,and storage fees for parents reaching $1,500 a year, many people are wondering what should be done with the nation's prodigious stores of nascent human life.

"None of us really want to hang on to these embryos in perpetuity," said David Hoffman, a fertility doctor and past president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, the Birmingham-based professional group that conducted the survey with the Rand Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif.

The problem has taken on new urgency with the recent recognition that human embryos have scientific and perhaps commercial value as sources of stem cells, which researchers hope to transform into lifesaving therapies. The nationwide survey found that the parents of at least 11,000 embryos have given explicit permission for their embryos to be made available for research. But a policy imposed by President Bush in 2001 forbids federally funded scientists from doing such research -- a roadblock that left scientists all the more irritated yesterday upon learning just how many embryos are out there.

By contrast, religious conservatives and antiabortion advocates yesterday chastised the fertility industry for what they described as its profligate overproduction of embryos. Some called for more "embryo adoptions," in which donated frozen mbryos are transferred to the wombs of infertile women.

More than anything, experts said, the large number of embryos being preserved in icy timelessness is an indicator of the ambivalence many couples feel as they consider what to do with their hard-won but unneeded potential offspring.

"Some people just can't cope with the decision," said Pamela Madsen, executive director of the American Infertility Association, a New York-based patient education and advocacy organization. "Even though their religious or moral perspectives about when life begins are all very individual and different, still most of them will agree that their embryos are very special."

American women underwent about 100,000 fertility treatments in 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available, resulting in the birth of about 35,000 babies. The most common procedure, in vitro fertilization, usually generates more embryos than are immediately needed, and extras are typically frozen for possible use later.

Previous estimates have ranged from the tens of thousands to 200,000 frozen embryos, with many hovering around 100,000. Fertility clinics, which are ineligible for federal funding and so are free of much regulatory oversight, have long sidestepped the question.

The new findings come at an awkward time for the publicity-shy industry. It has been the focus of increased attention from the Food and Drug Administration, which has gradually imposed new layers of oversight, and the President's Council on Bioethics, which is toying with recommendations for added regulation.

The census surveyed all 430 U.S. fertility practices, asking how many embryos they have stored and their "disposition" -- a reference to the fact that virtually all fertility patients must sign a form saying whether they want leftover embryos stored, destroyed or made available for donation, either to researchers or infertile women.

All but 90 doctor's offices and clinics responded, and the team estimated the number of embryos at 58 of the 90 on the basis of their number of clients and other details. The team tallied a "conservative" total of 396,526 embryos.

About 3 percent were earmarked for research; 2 percent for destruction and a like number for donation to women; and 1 percent for quality-assurance studies. Most of the rest -- about 87 percent of the total -- were reserved for ongoing fertility efforts.

The survey, detailed in the May issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility, did not ascertain how long embryos had been in storage -- a detail some experts saidwould make clear that most embryos saved for further fertility work are unlikely to be used for making babies. Frozen embryos can remain viable for a decade or more, but with each passing year, couples are increasingly unlikely to use them, because they have either given birth or given up.

There are no easy answers to the embryo glut. In the United Kingdom, where 52,000 human embryos were in storage as of 1996, the government triggered an uproar when it imposed a policy of destroying "abandoned" embryos after five years.

"In the U.S., it would be pretty tough to tell someone that," said study leader Hoffman, a director of the IVF Florida Reproductive Associates in Margate, Fla. "In this country, it's the patients who determine what's done with their embryos. Not doctors, not the government or the bureaucracy."

Harvard University stem cell scientist Douglas Melton reacted to the new census with frustration. "These embryos could be put to a number of good research purposes," he said, including gaining a better understanding of birth defects and developing cellular therapies for serious diseases.

But opponents of embryo research said the report should prompt fertility doctors to find ways to waste fewer embryos. The situation, said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, "bespeaks a mind-set that does not regard these as members of the human family."

Jeffrey Kahn, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, said the discovery that so many embryos are being made and maintained by fertility doctors puts in perspective claims by Johnson and others that stem cell researchers want to create "human embryo farms" for their studies.

"It shows that the place where embryos are made is largely not in the private research enterprise but in the reproductive medicine clinics," Kahn said. "In a way, people who are upset about the mass production of human embryos have been barking up the wrong tree."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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