IVF and the Fate of Human Embryos

Not so long ago, I gave a talk about assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) and mentioned the fate of the human embryos produced – they may be transferred to the patient, donated to another woman, frozen for later use, donated for destructive research, or simply squashed.  In the subsequent question-and-answer session, someone asked, ‘How many embryos are in each of these five categories?’  I did not know, but I promised to find out.

Somewhat obligingly, in July 2007, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) published a document entitled, A Long Term Analysis of the HFEA Register Data (1991-2006).  It is brimming with tables of significant data, but because it is 100 pages long, it will not fascinate many readers.  In addition, I have used the HFEA’s latest set of annual figures, published in June 2007, which refers to events in 2005.

The following is an analysis of some of these HFEA statistics.  It must be said that they are pretty convoluted, often with quirky categories, so their interpretation is not always easy.  But make no mistake, the following is the alarming truth, and it represents what is happening within the 122 ART clinics throughout the UK.

In 2005, there were 41,932 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) cycles completed.  There were several purposes for these cycles.  For example, a few were for ova sharing, or ova storage, or even for research, but most (40,888 or 97.5%) were for infertility treatment.  And all subsequent figures recorded here will follow this treatment track.

In 2005, a total of 32,626 women underwent IVF treatment – obviously some had more than one treatment cycle in that year.  Standard IVF procedures dictate that most of these women would be treated with fertility drugs, such as Clomid, so that they ‘superovulated’.  Indeed, a colossal 306,883 ova were collected from them – an average of between 7 and 8 ova per treatment cycle.

Only 8 of these ova were donated to other women, only 179 were stored for later use and only 667 were donated for research.  The vast majority (278,948 or 90.9%) were mixed with sperm.  Of course, not all of these ova were fertilised.  Nevertheless, 186,602 human embryos were created in these laboratories – this is a key datum.

During 2005, an additional 28,385 frozen embryos were thawed.  Some of these would have been frozen, stored and then thawed in 2005, and some would have been embryos stored during previous years.  Furthermore, there were some donated as ‘fresh’ embryos.  The HFEA statistics do not allow an analysis of the complexities of this dynamic situation.  Nevertheless, helpfully, the HFEA does record that during 2005 a grand total of 214,177 embryos were ‘used’.

Yet of this almost one-quarter of a million embryos, only 68,083 were transferred to women.  That is just one-third. What happened to the other two-thirds?  The HFEA states that 43,892 were frozen and stored, 230 were donated to other women, 4,338 were donated for research, but 97,634 were euphemistically ‘discarded’.

So there we have it.  Transferred, 31.8%; frozen, 20.5%; donated, 0.1%; for research, 2.0%; discarded, 45.6%.  The latter two categories constitute those destined for deliberate destruction – a total of 101,972 human embryos, or almost half of those created by IVF, destroyed, in just one year.

There are obvious links between the IVF and abortion industries.  Ethically, both say, ‘It’s OK for human beings to be deliberately destroyed.’  Economically, both say, ‘There’s money to be made from desperate people.’  Medically, both say, ‘The tiny are of little consequence.’  Philosophically, both say, ’These are complex, unfathomable matters.’  Statistically, both say, ‘Abortion destroys 200,000 lives each year, IVF destroys only 100,000.’

What do you say? Is IVF only half as bad as abortion?

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