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'Adoption' of frozen embryos a loaded term

'Adoption' of frozen embryos a loaded term

By Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

(CNN) -- The estimates are striking: over 200,000 embryos are left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts to help couples have children. The unused embryos are frozen in labs all over the United States, waiting for a decision about what will be done with them.

Unlike other countries, most notably Britain, the United States has no rules about how long human embryos can remain frozen before a decision about their fate must be made. This has led to a growing number of unused frozen embryos, with many suggestions but little consensus about what should happen to them. As it stands, couples can leave the embryos frozen for later use, donate them to other couples, donate them for research uses, or discard them.

In late July, the Bush administration's Department of Health and Human Services announced it was making funds available to "support development and delivery of public awareness campaigns on embryo adoption." The goal is to help couples better understand their options, or to advocate for a particular option -- depending on political perspective.

What's interesting is the focus on "adoption" of embryos, especially to the exclusion of the other legitimate options available to couples.

What does such a funding program mean for how we should think of human embryos, and for the future of reproductive technologies in the wake of stem cell research?

Can embryos be 'adopted'?

The use of the term "embryo adoption" puts a particular spin on the difficult issues surrounding what should happen to frozen embryos. It makes the obvious parallel between donating embryos and adopting children. In the process, the funding program implicitly grants embryos particular moral status without argument or discussion.

Up to now, the more general term "embryo donation" has been used to describe both giving embryos to other couples and donating embryos for research purposes, such as stem cell research.

Both are legitimate decisions for dealing with frozen embryos, but the new focus on "adoption" effectively narrows embryo donation to couples who will try to create pregnancies with them -- research labs won't "adopt" embryos.

This perspective has implications not only for reproductive medicine, but for the abortion debate as well. If embryos created by IVF deserve an emphasis on their adoption, what about those embryos created the "regular" way inside a woman's womb?

Who gets to decide?

There is nothing wrong with government efforts to inform the public about available programs. But reproductive liberty demands that individuals be free to decide whether, when, and how they will reproduce, and it remains to be seen whether the government's plan unjustifiably limits that freedom.

In the end, individuals should be free to determine what should happen to the embryos that are created for them, and donating embryos to other couples is only one option.

For the federal government to fund programs to exclusively encourage donation to other couples is to use public money to endorse a particular view about the status of embryos and what should be done with them.

Most important, it is a step away from couples controlling the fate of their embryos, and toward viewing embryos as needing government protection and the help of groups that seek to "place" them with caring families. The way we're heading, it's a short step to lab freezers being called orphanages, and social workers assigned to look after the interests of their frozen charges. Is it cold in here, or is it just me?

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.




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