INDIAN WELLS, CALIF. — Just over half of the couples donating unused embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures consider the embryos to be “completely different from children.”
Indeed, many say they view the process as similar to donating blood or organs, according to a survey done by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Julianne E. Zweifel, Ph.D., and her associates decided to explore the attitudes of couples donating embryos for stem cell research when routine telephone calls during the process became lengthy discussions, suggesting to the team that these couples may have had unresolved feelings and questions.
“Phone calls that should [have lasted] about 5 minutes were lasting 20 or 30 minutes. They wanted to talk through these issues,” Dr. Zweifel said during a presentation of her results at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Reproductive Society.
A subset of 45 couples consented to answer questions about the embryo donation process. The embryos had been created, in about one in five couples, with donor gametes.
Couples' embryos had been cryopreserved for a mean 4.8 years, with a wide range of 1–13 years, possibly representing the difficulty some couples had in making a decision about what to do, said Dr. Zweifel of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The respondents said they were donating embryos to research to help others (21 couples), in hopes of finding a cure for a specific disease (8 couples), to support research in general (7 couples), because they did not want to waste the embryos (7 couples), or for other reasons (2 couples).
The couples were asked to rate, on a three-point Likert scale, how closely they agreed that they viewed their embryos as children.
More than half (23 of 45) said they considered the embryos completely different from children, while 19 said they were something like children, and 3 said they viewed them as children. Many couples (20 of 45) said they thought embryo donation was roughly akin to donating blood or organs.
When asked why they did not decide to donate their embryos to another infertile couple, most couples said they were uncomfortable with the idea of having an unknown genetic/biologic child or with knowing that someone else would raise the child.
Importantly, many couples had been given misinformation about their ability to donate their embryos for stem cell research prior to contacting the Wisconsin program. Many were told, inaccurately, that they did not have enough embryos to donate, that the embryos had been inadequately screened for sexually transmitted diseases, or that donation simply was not an option.
Although only 2 of the couples had sought counseling about the decision, 44 of 45 couples said they found the additional discussion with the University of Wisconsin health care professionals to be helpful.
Dr. Zweifel said there is a need for guidelines on how to assist couples in their decision regarding unused embryos so that they get accurate information about the choices they have as well as the necessary psychological counseling and support.
She also raised the question of whether the sources of third-party gametes should be consulted at the time of donation as to disposition of any unused embryos that might result.