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Extra Embryos: Should You Donate Them to Science?


by Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, Dec. 31, 2009

There are almost half a million embryos in storage in the U.S., according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and many of the individuals they belong to are faced with the difficult decision of what to do with the ones they don't plan to implant. While some will prefer to give their extra embryos up for adoption, others would like the opportunity to donate their embryos to the progress of science and medicine.

In March, 2009, President Obama issued an executive order removing the ban on human stem cell research. In December, 2009, NIH director Francis Collins announced the approval of the first 13 human embryonic stem cells lines for use in NIH-funded research. Researchers hope to use these lines to treat a myriad of diseases from autoimmune disorders to cancer, and to test the safety of new drugs.

A 2007 study by doctors at Duke University and John Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics published in Science magazine indicated that donating embryos to science is the "morally preferred option" over disposing the embryos. The study focused on nine fertility centers around the country and randomly selected more than 2,000 couples to receive questionnaires. Of the 1,020 respondants who still had embryos in storage, 49 percent said they were likely to donate some or all of them for research. When asked specifically about stem cell research, the portion willing to donate embryos rose to 62 percent.

If you're interested in donating your embryos, consult the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has set up a new information website about stem cell research. There are more than a dozen research programs to which to donate, and information on them can also be found on the NIH website.

"It's possible for a woman or a couple to specify the type of research they would like their embryos used for," says Jenny Heliski, a spokesperson for the NIH. "NIH wants there to be a separation between the couple's treatment and the decision to donate so there's no financial incentive from the fertility clinic or the research organization."


Rachel Lehmann-Haupt ( is a journalist and the author of In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood (Basic Books, 2009).