60% of Couples OK Embryos for Research

Most Infertile Couples Favor Stem Cell Research; Fewer Would Donate Embryos to Others

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 20, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

June 20, 2007 -- A new survey suggests the majority of people most intimately involved in the debate over embryonic stem cell research favor the use of stored frozen embryos for this purpose.

Sixty percent of infertility patients with frozen embryos queried in the newly published survey said they would be willing to donate their unused embryos for stem cell research.

By contrast, just over one in five (22%) said they would be willing to donate the embryos to other couples wishing to conceive.

Results from the survey were made public Wednesday, just as President Bush vetoed legislation aimed at easing restrictions on federally financed stem cell research.

“Polls show that 60% or more of the American public support embryonic stem cell research, and we now know that about the same number of infertility patients would be likely to donate their embryos for this cause,” survey co-author Ruth R. Faden, PhD, tells WebMD.

Faden is director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

“There is a strange disconnect between the pubic policy at the federal level and the preferences of both the American people and the people who created the embryos we are talking about,” she says.

‘Missing From the Debate’

Faden and co-author Anne Drapkin Lyerly, MD, of Duke University, based their conclusions on surveys of 1,020 members of couples with stored frozen embryos treated at nine infertility centers around the country.

The findings are published in the latest online issue of the journal Science.

Nearly half of those questioned (49%) indicated they were “somewhat or very likely” to donate their unused frozen embryos to medical research. When asked if they would be willing to donate the embryos for stem cell research, specifically, 60% of the respondents answered in the affirmative, even though the survey made it clear that the embryos would be destroyed in the process.

“The wishes of this key group have been missing from the debate,” Faden says. “These embryos are created by real people with names and stories. And those people have views about their own moral responsibilities to these embryos and what they want to happen to them.”


There are currently around 400,000 frozen embryos stored in the United States. If the survey paints an accurate picture of the feelings of infertile couples nationwide, Faden and Lyerly suggest that as many as 100,000 stored embryos would be available for research.


That is assuming the law is changed to allow federally funded research on new embryonic stem cells.

Currently, federal funding for stem cell research prohibits the use of cells derived from embryos available after August of 2001. The bill vetoed by President Bush Wednesday would have lifted this restriction.

2,000 New Stem Cell Lines

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to become any type of cell present in the human body. The hope is that research using the cells will lead to advances in the treatment of a host of human conditions including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

Faden and Lyerly estimated that the availability of 100,000 new embryos could conservatively lead to 2,000 new stem cell lines -- 100 times as many lines as are being used in federally funded research today.

“Other lines are being used in privately funded research,” Faden says. “But it is clear that if federal funding restrictions were lifted, embryos would be available in large numbers.”


The fact that so few infertility patients questioned in the survey (22% of respondents with embryos) were willing to donate their unused frozen embryos to couples intending pregnancy adds a new wrinkle to the national stem cell debate, Lyerly tells WebMD.

She is an ob-gyn at Duke University Medical Center and a faculty member at Duke’s Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine.

“The presumption has been that if you respect embryos you would be less likely to want to see them used for research or destroyed than for [pregnancy],” she says. “What we found was that the people who are most invested in these embryos -- emotionally, genetically, and financially -- are reluctant to have them turned into children outside the context of their families, without their love and care.”

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SOURCES: Lyerly and Faden, Science Express, June 21, 2007; online edition. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, MD, MA, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and faculty member, Trent Center for Bioethics, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC. Ruth R. Faden, PhD, director, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute for Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. “Bush Vetoes Stem Cell Bill,” New York Times, June 20, 2007.

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