How Couples Feel About Unwanted Embryos

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
baby foot

In one of the largest surveys ever, couples responded to questionnaires about what they want to do with unwanted embryos. Two out of three couples surveyed said they would not want their unwanted embryos donated for research. Currently there are approximately half a million embryos stored in fertility clinics in the US.

The survey findings, published in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility, found that the embryo disposal options available for couples seem mostly unacceptable. The questionnaire asked the couples which of seven options they would prefer, five of which are considered conventional; the other two being to transfer to anther woman, or ceremnonious disposal of the embryo, neither of which is currently offered by the fertility centers associated with the surveyed couples.

Couples who did not want to have another baby (193 individuals), said they would be amenable to donating the embryos to research (41%). A mere 16% said they would allow their embryos to be donated for reproductive purposes, and 12% felt that it would be fine to thaw and discard the embryos. The driving forces included not wanting another person to raise the couple’s genetic child, and wasting an embryo that could contribute to finding disease cures.


Elizabeth Ginsburg, MD, President of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology says, “It’s a difficult decision that patients have to make, but we can help them by discussing with new patients the ramifications of embryo freezing and by regularly reminding patients who have stored embryos of the choices available to them.”

Most of the couples who were childless intended to use their embryos for starting a family (54%). Those who had the embryos stored for five years or more simply wished to keep them frozen indefinitely, or thawed for disposal.

Understanding options about what can be done with frozen embryos may be due to lack of discussion between patient and physician at the beginning of fertility treatment. Dr. Ginsburg says, “As clinicians, we need to give patients more information and more real choices concerning what they can do with the embryos that may remain after they complete their families.”

The survey included 1020 patients from geographically diverse US fertility clinics throughout the nation. When couples complete their goals for starting a family, the remaining embryos resulting from in vitro fertilization (IVF) seem to receive little thought or attention.