What happens to surplus embryos from IVF or embryo freezing?

We’ve at times talked about eggs and embryos in a somewhat utilitarian way on this blog. However, thinking about the fate of human embryos and eggs is a complex and deeply personal matter. The complexity of how people feel and think about frozen eggs or embryos is reflected in different countries’ legislations about what you are and aren’t allowed to do with any surplus eggs or embryos. As assisted reproductive technologies that can create this kind of surplus haven’t been around for very long, some laws are still in flux or being updated.

Spanish law allows the donation of up to six embryos to a woman or a couple who cannot otherwise conceive. Egg and embryo donations are always anonymous and free in Spain, and donor(s) and recipient(s) are typically matched by the fertility center on limited criteria such as race. Even though egg or embryo donations are strictly anonymous, there could still be ways for a child to track down a biological parent(s) in the future (e.g., through 23andMe). Egg and embryo donations can only come from women younger than 35.

Alternatively, embryos can be donated for scientific research. However, Spanish research centers have not requested any eggs or embryos for their research for the past two decades. Spanish fertility clinics are allowed to destroy embryos after they’ve already been stored for ten years. Spain currently has a significant surplus of frozen eggs and embryos, making it a destination for many couples and women seeking egg or embryo donors, especially given shortages in other countries (e.g., the UK).

Laws in the US are a bit different – they allow eggs and embryos to be destroyed at any time, and donations don’t have to be anonymous. Only an estimated 8% of embryos are donated in the US. Embryos are also allowed to be used in stem cell research. A 2005 study of 58 couples who’d undergone IVF and had surplus embryos found that 72% of participants hadn’t yet decided what to do with the additional embryos. The annual storage fees of at least $500 for frozen eggs or embryos often pushes fertility patients to make a decision more quickly.

Similarly to the US, the UK allows embryos to be discarded or donated, as long as both parties have given their consent. It gets more complicated if one partner withdraws their consent for donation or use of the embryos, at which point UK law activates a “cooling-off” period of up to a year when the two parties reconsider what to do with the embryos. If one consent remains withdrawn, then the embryos are destroyed. In Germany, children conceived through egg or embryo donation have the right to find out who their biological parent(s) are by the age of 18.

There are meaningful differences between countries for what patients are allowed to do with surplus eggs or embryos. Before starting treatment through Ovally or elsewhere, it’s worth thinking through how you think about eggs and embryos and what option(s) you’d choose should there be additional eggs or embryos that you may not want to use.


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