Are Embryos Discarded During IVF?

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Key Takeaways:

  • Yes, embryos are sometimes discarded during IVF when couples have spare embryos they don’t use.
  • Couples must decide on options like embryo donation, thawing and discarding, indefinite frozen storage, or using for research.
  • Discarding can be an ethical dilemma for some couples, with up to 40% struggling with the decision.
  • There are various reasons embryos may be discarded, including poor quality, failing to develop, genetic issues, or patient wishes.
  • Clinic policies and legal regulations vary on length of storage and other embryo disposition issues.


In vitro fertilization (IVF) involves fertilizing an egg with sperm in a laboratory dish to create embryos. Some of these embryos are then transferred into the woman’s uterus in hopes of establishing a pregnancy. However, it’s common for more embryos to be created than are used in a given IVF cycle. This leaves many couples with spare embryos remaining after the IVF process is complete. So what happens to these extra embryos that are not transferred? Are they discarded?

This article will take an in-depth look at the complex issue of embryo disposal during IVF. The benefits and drawbacks of various options for unused embryos will be explored. Key considerations and ethical concerns that factor into a couple’s decision making will also be examined. Comprehensive information will be provided on the policies and regulations pertaining to embryo storage limits and disposition. By the end, readers will have a thorough understanding of the reasons embryos may be discarded, why this can be a struggle for some couples, and the thought processes involved in making embryo disposition decisions after IVF.

For couples considering IVF, the multitude of decisions surrounding spare embryos can be overwhelming. The information here aims to bring clarity to this complex phase of the IVF journey. Understanding the full range of options, ethical implications, and clinic processes enables patients to make informed choices aligned with their personal values. Now let’s explore the central question – are embryos discarded during IVF?

Why Are Excess Embryos Created During IVF?

IVF involves stimulating the ovaries to produce multiple eggs, which are then retrieved in an outpatient procedure. The eggs are fertilized with sperm in the lab to create embryos. The higher the number of quality embryos, the greater the chances are of having a successful pregnancy. Typically multiple embryos are created because:

  • Not all eggs retrieved can be successfully fertilized into embryos. Creating more embryos accounts for failed fertilization.
  • Some embryos may not survive the freeze-thaw process if they will be frozen for later use. Thus extra embryos are needed.
  • After the fresh embryo transfer in the IVF cycle, having surplus quality frozen embryos can provide couples with multiple chances for pregnancy without repeating the entire egg retrieval process.

Since every patient responds differently to IVF drugs, doctors aim to maximize the embryo yield per cycle. However, this often leaves patients with 1-3 surplus embryos after their transferred embryos implant successfully. So what are couples to do with these spare embryos?

What Options Exist for Leftover Embryos After IVF?

Couples have a few choices when deciding the fate of spare embryos following IVF treatment:

Embryo donation – Donating remaining embryos to other infertile couples and individuals. The embryos are transferred and could result in offspring biologically related to the genetic parents who donated the embryos.

Thawing and discarding – Thawing and discarding leftover embryos, typically treating them as medical waste.

Continued frozen storage – Keeping embryos frozen indefinitely for potential future use by the genetic parents. Fees apply for prolonged storage at IVF clinics or offsite facilities.

Use for research – Donating unwanted embryos for use in various research studies attempting to make IVF, infertility treatments, and other medical procedures more effective.

Are Embryos Discarded After IVF?

Yes, it is common for IVF patients to discard unused spare embryos after completing treatment. One study found over half of IVF patients chose to thaw and discard leftover embryos once they were done building their families. Only around 30% opted for continued storage, while smaller percentages chose embryo donation or use for research.

There are several scenarios in which embryo disposal commonly occurs:

  • The couple completes their family and does not want more children.
  • Testing uncovers genetic issues making embryos unsuitable for transfer or donation.
  • The couple divorces and cannot reach an agreement on disposition.
  • Embryos fail to survive freezing and thawing for transfer in a later cycle.
  • The quality level of surplus embryos is too poor for a good chance of viability.
  • Personal, ethical, or religious beliefs lead the couple to not pursue other options.
  • The regulatory storage time limit is reached at the IVF clinic.

Why Can Discarding Embryos Be a Difficult Decision?

For some IVF patients, discarding embryos raises profound moral dilemmas and emotional struggles. A study by Duke University found that over 40% of couples undergoing IVF had difficulties making embryo disposition decisions. There are several reasons why the choice to destroy embryos can be ethically complex:

  • Viewing embryo destruction as loss of potential life
  • Believing using embryos for research is experimentation on potential humans
  • Wanting to avoid contributing to overpopulation by having excessive genetic children
  • Pressure from cultural or religious values against embryo destruction
  • Concerns about donating embryos outside the family
  • Fear about unwanted contact from offspring resulting from donation
  • Guilt over creation of surplus embryos during IVF

What Factors Do Couples Consider When Deciding?

According to fertility experts, some of the key considerations couples weigh when choosing what to do with extra embryos include:

  • Personal values – Religious, cultural, and moral beliefs and principles.
  • Future family planning – Desire for more children or certainty about family completion.
  • Disposition options – Comfort level with donating versus discarding.
  • Genetic relationships – Wanting genetic connections to any offspring from donated embryos.
  • Privacy concerns – Worries about potential contact from offspring of donated embryos.
  • Clinic policies – Storage limits, fees, and other clinic regulations.
  • Legal issues – State laws regulating embryo use and contractual obligations.
  • Financial matters – Ability to pay indefinite storage fees versus disposal costs.

Making the very personal decision about discarding embryos entails synthesizing this wide array of logistical, ethical, emotional, and legal factors. Understanding patients’ perspectives enables clinics to provide better counsel and support.

What Are Typical Clinic Policies on Embryo Storage and Disposal?

Practices and policies for embryo storage and discarding vary significantly among IVF clinics:

  • Storage time limits – Many clinics set 1-5 year limits for frozen embryo storage. Couples must then decide on disposal or pay added fees for continued storage.
  • Abandoned embryos – If couples don’t pay storage fees or can’t be contacted, clinics gain authority to discard abandoned embryos.
  • Disposal methods – Embryos are typically discarded as medical waste, incinerated onsite, or sent to medical waste disposal facilities.
  • Consent protocols – Clear consent is required from both partners to thaw and discard according to most clinic policies.

Clinics should clearly explain all policies upfront to patients considering IVF. Couples need to factor regulations into making their own embryo disposition plan.

What Are the Laws on Embryo Storage and Destruction?

Laws governing assisted reproductive technology (ART) vary significantly globally. In the U.S., regulation occurs at both federal and state levels. Key legal issues include:

  • Embryo status – There are no federal laws defining embryos as humans with rights, but some states protect embryos in various ways.
  • Disposition disputes – Courts consider contracts, intent, and interests of both partners in settlement disputes over stored embryos.
  • Storage limits – 10 states have laws capping storage limits, ranging from 3-10 years after initial IVF treatment.
  • Abandonment – State laws grant authority to clinics to dispose of abandoned embryos based on contractual agreements and storage limit expiration.

Complex legal issues can arise related to embryo disposition, underscoring why couples should agree on clear advanced directives.

In Summary

In conclusion, embryo disposal does frequently occur as part of the IVF process when couples produce excess embryos. For many patients, discarding embryos raises ethical concerns and difficult emotional dynamics. Making disposition decisions involves weighing personal values, family planning goals, legal obligations, and clinic policies. While embryo destruction can pose moral dilemmas, individuals ultimately have to decide what choice is right for their unique situations. Understanding all the options, considerations, and clinic processes involved provides essential support for patients in this complex phase of IVF treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many embryos are typically created during IVF?

It’s common for around 8-15 embryos to be created in a typical IVF cycle. However, the number can vary significantly based on the woman’s age and ovarian response. Younger women and better responders often produce more embryos.

What percentage of IVF patients have surplus embryos?

Studies show around 60-70% of IVF cycles result in spare embryos after the fresh embryo transfer is complete. This leaves many couples making decisions on unused embryos.

How long can embryos be frozen and stored?

With optimal cryopreservation techniques, embryos can likely remain viable for decades when frozen. However, storage limits at clinics typically range from 1-5 years. Extensions require added fees.

Do fertility clinics profit from prolonged embryo storage?

Yes, extended embryo storage provides added profit for fertility clinics. Couples pay annual fees ranging from $200-$500 to keep embryos frozen beyond initial periods covered under IVF costs.

Can you specify in advance what you want done with embryos if you die?

Yes, couples should stipulate their wishes for embryo disposition in case of divorce, death, or other situations through legal documentation like a will, trust, or embryo disposition agreement.

Can one partner make a unilateral decision to discard embryos?

No, joint consent is typically required for any embryo disposition decision, including thawing and discarding. Unilateral decisions can prompt legal battles over embryo custody.

Are any parts of embryos ever used for research purposes?

Yes, with proper consent, embryos may donate material for research, including stem cells, DNA, and blastomeres. All embryonic material is handled respectfully according to ethical guidelines.

What support do couples receive in making embryo decisions?

Clinics have staff like mental health professionals, social workers, and religious counselors to advise couples weighing embryo disposition options and address emotional difficulties.

What happens to an embryo once it’s discarded?

Clinics follow medical waste disposal guidelines and protocols. This typically involves incineration, sanitization, or sending remains to specialist disposal facilities in a respectful manner.

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