Human life in frozen embryos? Fertility treatments ethics

Human life in frozen Embryo and Fertility treatment ethics

There are different explanations for the concept of the embryo for human life.

These explanations are largely based upon the social contemplations of people.

The concept of frozen human embryos has always remained a topic of ethical concern.

There are multiple definitions of embryo derived from individual ethicists and legislators.

In IVF clinics, the frozen embryos are considered as ‘potential’ human life form.

However, some believe that frozen embryos are not only a “potential” human life form; but they are in every aspect of human life.

The purpose of utilising an embryo in the medical field also provides an impact on considering an embryo as human life or a definite human stem cell source.

Medical experts and ethical researchers have defined embryo depending upon its diverse discursive fields.

According to this strategy, ‘the embryo’ term is used to describe or characterize for symbolising moral status; whereas, ‘an embryo’, is used to describe an outcome of the IVF process.

The term ‘Our embryo’  is used when a couple has already considered this as ‘our baby’ after processing in the IVF clinic and implanted it in the mother’s ovary with particular moral and social values.

Therefore, a variety of points of view has resulted because the embryo is considered as pro-life but utilised for harvesting embryonic stem cells from frozen embryos, which are intended to be discarded from fertility clinics.

The array of definitions for embryo are only applicable for the frozen embryo which is derived in the IVF clinic but not applied for the fresh embryo.

Fresh embryos get physical space and social identity immediately after development.

But frozen embryos get the physical location and social identity when they are applied for fertility treatment or human embryonic stem cell research.

Through recent medical development, stem cell research has come out as one of the most promising techniques to cure multiple diseases.

However, the stem cell research process explained as “the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings”, and is believed to be a bit unethical as to use embryonic stem cells, because the embryo is considered as pro-life.

Adaptation of frozen embryos is highly appreciated to save human life and prevent surplus or are smashed for research utilisation.

In 2005, former U.S President George Bush appreciated the frozen embryo adoption program and has increased the funding for adult stem cell research to avoid the destruction of emerging human life by utilising human embryonic stem cells.

All these explanations help to prove that frozen embryos are human life in every aspect.

But it needs to mention that adult stem cell research is ethical, as it does not dispose of human life, nor violate rights and dignity of human life; so we should support this research process for medical advancement.

Fertility treatment present ethical dilemmas

Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) is one of the promising technologies to increase the scope of fertility by resolving reproductive issues.

This technology involves the stimulation of ovulation and another physiological process to manipulate egg or sperm production in the clinical laboratory.

There is an artificial insemination process that uses donor eggs or sperms for fertilization.

Clinically these procedures are classified as intrauterine insemination (IUI), in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).

These fertility treatments give scope to a couple to have their parenthood.

But many ethical concerns create social barriers to accept these procedures.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) using frozen embryos is a highly successful fertility treatment.

In a typical IVF process, the embryo is produced in a Petri dish and artificially fertilizes female’s eggs with the sperm of her male partner through multiple fertilization processes.

After completion of fertilization, some of the embryos are implanted into the female ovary with anticipation that one or more will affix to the uterine wall for a successful pregnancy.

The remaining healthy embryos are kept frozen for future use.

A new and advanced medical process of IVF is termed as Augment.

In this process, a combination of stem cells and eggs are recharged and energized for the fertilization process.

The resultant healthiest embryo is utilizes for implantation of the female uterus.

Implementation of the Augment IVF process provides successful pregnancy among 38% women of 30 years of age and 18% success for women with 40 years of age.

In the USA, the Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that more than 600,000 frozen embryos were stored before 2015, however, it is difficult to estimate this number worldwide.

The legal policies allow the IVF process but do not extend so much focus on frozen embryos.

The couple has to pay huge charges to store or destroy the frozen embryos.

Moreover, there are a lot of legal issues that surface in case of a partner’s death or divorce.

Therefore, it has become a necessity to know the different factual contexts related to fertilization treatment which can create ethical dilemmas.

Frozen embryo related ethical issues

  • Artificial fertilization is legal, but there is no particular legislation amended for abnormal or orphaned frozen embryos.
  • IVF centers must enter in a contract or agreement with the couple pursuing artificial fertilization.

This type of contract mainly focuses on policies which encourage to choose between the destruction of the embryos and the donation of the embryos to another couple.

However, most of the couples choose to donate to others.

Some IVF clinics also have an indefinite freezing option to avoid the destruction of the embryos, though practically it is not possible as frozen embryos gradually start deteriorating if not implanted within a particular timing.

Experts found that there are lots of loopholes present in such type of contract or agreement documents, which support illegal activities and can harm the embryo.

These include the utilisation of human embryo for experimental purposes, the commercialized sale of embryos, or promoting negative eugenics, as there are no specific norms mentioned in this purpose.

Also, some scientists support embryonic stem cell research which can also negatively affect the frozen embryo.

  • There is no specific law for ensuring custody of an orphaned frozen embryo. As we know, a couple can choose the indefinite storing period for frozen embryos, but in case of the accidental death of a partner, there are lots of complex procedures to get the custody of the stored frozen embryo.

If any couple applied for divorce after signing the contract for the IVF process, then after divorce there may arise complications for getting the permission of biological fatherhood.

  • There is no authorised person to decide what to do with the frozen embryos in case of the death of a couple.

Ethical concerns of the ART implementation

Biological parenthood

The IVF or donor insemination process has the scope to utilise donated eggs and/ or sperm in case of either of the partner is unable to produce.

This results in some ethical concerns as well.

In case the genetic materials are collected from husband and wife, then the acceptance of the process is increased even after involving complicated invasive processes.

Although, surrogacy and adoption are not readily acceptable even after a less invasive procedure.

The biological relationship between parent and children interferes with this difference of acceptance.

Therefore, genetics and gestational differences can further increase the complexity of the fertility treatment.

Value systems

Every religion follows some value system and that strongly influences ART acceptance.

ART does not follow the normal technique for conceiving and gestation.

People with conservative beliefs accept ART reluctantly as they find ethical issues in it.

Political and social involvement also increases exposure towards the value system and that also influences their conservative mentality towards acceptance of the ART process for solving fertility issues.

Comparatively, the female counterpart is found eager in accepting ART for adoption and forming an alternative family.

Cultural Lag

The difference in cultural lag is significant in the educational perspective.

Educated society can overcome ethical burden through liberal attitudes towards accepting the ART in comparison to the conservative, and less educated society with lower cultural lag.

Self selection

When a couple mutually sought for ART to resolve the infertility issues are less likely to have ethical problems, than a family with one counterpart (female/ male) inclined towards parenthood.

Therefore, self selection is very important to avert ethical problems.

Treatment Cost

The advent of new techniques has also increased the cost of ART.

A few years back, researchers have estimated the minimum rate to pursue IVF in private clinics to be 960 US dollars and can rise more than 1550 US dollars depending upon the complexity of the case.

This price has increased in the present day.

This cost burden is another cause of restricted use of fertility treatment, as the lower middle class is unable to bear this financial load.

Side effects of fertility treatments

There is no treatment modality available without side effects, specifically for ART related complex processes.

Ectopic pregnancy is very common in the IVF process due to the hyper-stimulation of the ovaries.

Fertility drugs prescribed in ART often causes abdominal inflammation, nausea, vomiting, significant abdominal cramp, diarrhea, and dehydration.

Besides, the chest and abdominal cavity have fluid retention, breathing difficulty and significant abdominal swelling.

Moreover, Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome increases the risk of plaque formation, ovarian torsion, and renal damage.


Ethical issues related to fertility treatment has always been a concern, which cannot be overcome until society itself accept this process.

Strong legal parameters, the involvement of health departments and recommendations from advisory committees to set proper guidelines can help in the advancement and acceptance of fertility treatment processes.

Read also: Egg freezing for future fertility.

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