What’s wrong with donating excess fertility embryos to research?

The Supreme Court ruling this week that human embryos do not have the same legal protection under the Irish constitution as the ‘unborn’ child in the womb, has major implications for couples undergoing fertility treatment here.

For many couples, fertility treatment means the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg are brought together in the lab by embryologists, grown in a dish, and re-implanted – usually two at a time – back into the womb.

This process is called IVF, or in vitro fertilisation, and, as a global fertility technique it has been around since the late 1970s. It can involve the couples own egg and sperm, or the egg from the woman only, with donor sperm, or the sperm from the man only, with a donor egg. There can also be embryos donated to infertile couples from other couples.


To avoid the dangers of multiple births, triplets or more, clinics now implant two embryos at a time.  This means if more than two embryos are generated from the IVF, then these extra embryos must be frozen, or destroyed.

The great untold story of fertility clinics in Ireland is what happens the frozen embryos. There is a cost to storing embryos so there is a suspicion that surplus embryos might be routinely destroyed.

There is no legislation governing what clinics should do with surplus embryos. In that environment why should clinics, from an economic point of view, and they are money making machines, pay for storing embryos they will never use?


In the US, there is a cost to couples that wish to store their excess embryos for possible implantation at a later date. If the couples do not want more children, then there are a number of options open to them. They can have the embryos destroyed, donated for research into stem cell therapies, or donated to another infertile couple for implantation.

This is all clear, out in the open, and entirely sensible. But, does Ireland do the same. No, of course not. At the moment that means that couples can walk away from a clinic, pregnant, and not have to worry about surplus embryos. Thanks very much for the baby, now I’d like not to think about this any more and get on with my life.

This is essentially an immature approach. Irish couples undergoing fertility treatment should be challenged from day one on what they are going to do with their excess embryos. It’s something a lot of them might not have considered.

If couples can’t deal with these choices then they would be better off not getting involved in IVF in the first place.


But these are not easy options, especially for Roman Catholic couples that do not want to have any more children. Destruction of embryos, or donation to research would seem to be out, and storage would be senseless for them.

The only option here would appear to be to donate the embryos to another infertile couple.

What would you do? It is a difficult choice, and certainly, this writer would be of the opinion that if the embryos were to be otherwise destroyed why not donate for research?

At least the embryos that way could contribute to providing breakthrough stem cell treatments for a range of incurable diseases in the future.

I’d love to get some feedback on your thoughts. Why not drop me an email at: sean@sciencespin.com