Frozen Embryos

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Acorn Fertility Clinic has a space problem. Its director, Franklin Pearce, just presented Acorn's Board of Directions with the problem, and now a vigorous discussion was going on. Pearce left the room to think.

The problem is partly a result of the clinic's success. Since its inception ten years earlier, the clinic has almost tripled its number of patients, and its success in achieving pregnancies in infertile couples is equal to the national average.

The clinic's greatest success has been in the use of in vitro fertilization. This procedure involves fertilizing the egg outside the body and then placing the zygote in the uterus of the patient. Usually up to 15 zygotes are produced, but only a few are placed back in the woman. The rest are frozen and held in liquid nitrogen.

Infertility specialists have been freezing embryos since 1984, with much success. The length of time an embryo can be held in a frozen state and "thawed out" succcessfully is not known. With better and better freezing techniques, the time is increasing. Recently a baby was born from an embryo that had been frozen for eight years.

Acorn Fertility has been freezing embryos since its inception. It has a large number of such embryos-thousands, in fact-some frozen for ten years. The parents of many of these embryos are present or past patients who have no need for them. With its patient base increasing, Acorn needs the space for new embryos.

The problem is not Acorn's alone. Ten thousand embryos are frozen each year in the United States, and the numbers are increasing. Many of these are sitting in liquid nitrogen in fertility clinics like Acorn.

Now sitting in his office, Dr. Pearce wondered what the Board of Directions would decide to do with the embryos that aren't being used.


  1. What should the board decide? List five things that might be done.
  2. Dr. Pearce is a medical doctor who has sworn to uphold life. What should his view be?
  3. In a number of legal cases, frozen embryos have created questions. Who owns them? Are they property? Are they children? In general, courts have decided that they are neither, and that they should be left frozen because no person can be made a parent if he or she does not want to be. Is this the right decision? Why or why not?
  4. In Australia, a couple died before the woman could be implanted with the frozen embryos that had been produced from the couple's eggs and sperm. The courts, upon being asked to decide if the couple's money belonged to the embryos, said no, and ruled that the embryos could not be implanted in another woman and should be destroyed. This was 15 years ago, and the embryos are still frozen. What should be done with them?
  5. In the future, we will be able to successfully thaw and implant embryos that have been frozen for 25 to 30 years. What problems do you foresee with this? What benefits? List three of each.

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