The IVF Side Effect: Orphan Embryos

In-Vitro Fertilization, or IVF, has given hope to millions of people with fertility issues. IVF can help create a pregnancy where none was previously possible. However, the practice leaves an unexpected side effect: orphan embryos.

IVF is a process that sounds simple, but in reality is exceptionally complex, with any number of points of failure. The woman is injected with artificial hormones to stimulate her ovaries to produce mature eggs. The eggs are then retrieved from her ovaries and combined with sperm, either passively (“let’s just put you in a dish and see how you get along”) or actively (injecting sperm directly in to the egg, a process known as ICSI). 
At this point, the process becomes a waiting game. Will the fertilization procedure take? Will the embryos begin dividing? Will they survive until they can be transferred back in to the mother’s uterus (usually three days after fertilization)? Once they are transferred, will anything survive and become a child?

The process is also uncertain in that you cannot know how many eggs will be retrieved from the mother or, once they’re retrieved and fertilized, how many will become healthy embryos. Since the recommended practice is to transfer only one, possibly two embryos back into the mother’s uterus, there can often be embryos leftover after the initial procedure. These embryos are generally frozen for later use.

But what happens if the parents cannot, or for whatever reason do not wish to, use the leftover embryos? These embryos are considered “orphaned” and are generally left to freeze indefinitely, are discarded, or donated for research. But what if they could be used to help other infertile couples?

This dilemma is prompting fertility clinics across Canada to formalize processes to allow parents to donate their embryos to parents for whom regular fertility treatments have failed. While embryo donation is legal in Canada, there are no guidelines or laws governing the practice, save that it is illegal to take money in exchange for an embryo. However, because the practice is not regulated, there is no way to determine if embryos are being sold or not.

Despite the ethical quandaries – what if the child wants to know about their biological parents? What if they carry a genetic condition? Embryo donation is undeniably a plausible, even attractive alernative for parents who have undergone the gruelling IVF process but who do not wish to have more children. Instead of simply disposing of the embryos, the donation could give hope to someone else who is trying to have a child.

By kaibara87 (originally posted to Flickr as Cell Culture) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Sandra Lewis
Sandra Lewis6 years ago

Tampering with human reproduction is counter-productive. It will only serve to create humans who could not otherwise exist, and introduces weaker genetics into the current population. To put it in stark, real, and explicit terms, forcing conception where it would not normally occur allows normally unviable sperm to fertilize normally unviable eggs. Under natural conditions, these unviable cells would not fertilize at such a high rate as they do under artificial forced circumstances. I don't believe in religion, but I do believe in genetics, and so I side with those who believe we shouldn't tamper with our genes and our normal reproduction, when we choose to reproduce. Because we are who we breed with; we are our genes. Only the best genes should be meeting under normal circumstances. I don't think there should be any laboratory experimentation or manipulation of human genetic materials so that embryos become a commodity that can be passed around like extra coins for a donation bin. I sympathize with people who can't have children, but not enough to grant their wish to create second-hand embryos that can even be frozen. Frozen? Think about it, really think about it. Who wants to start off life as a frozen embryo?

Leia P.
Leia P.6 years ago


Danielle Lenz
Danielle L7 years ago

I know there are extreme hopes and dreams related to carrying one's own child, but every time I read an article like this, my heart goes out to the 143 million orphans in this world. They are not embryos; they are conscious of their abandonment. What about them?

Sophie PRUNIER7 years ago

I didn't say that it was good to throw away embryos.
We should not try to procreate artificially at all
So many orphan children already exist, but will remain in poverty alone, with no future, no love, nothing....because of our egoism, we want a "clean" baby, from ourselves, to feel sensations.... we want a copy of our ego....
And yes, we are too many on earth.
- How many animals die each year for food now? 50 000 000 000!! This number might DOUBLE in 2050 because of population growth! Fishs are diseppearing....

- environmental destruction, massive extinction of species, deforestation , use of natural resources faster than they can be replaced, pollution of water and air, wastes, energy consumtion...

- Economical tensions, conflicts and wars, hanger, diseases, pandemia....
- As very few people want to go vegan, animals, and planet destruction will increase a lot more, and compromise human survivance on this planet.

I am against abortion, wars, suffering, diseases, pandemia, genocides, poisonning people food, poisonning people with drugs.... I only invite people to rationnalise their behaviour, to go vegan, and to reduce procreation, to get a voluntary sterilization and choose adoption, as a citizen, generous and responsible behaviour.

Hilary E.
Hilary E7 years ago

I'm not comfortable with IVF in the first place but if they're going to do it, and have these lefover embryos, I think they should be available. I don't really see them as humans...more living seeds. They are little sparks of life with the potential to be realized. At the same time, I don't really have a problem with discarding them either. Any way you look at it, whether you believe they are just little bundles of meaningless cells or little lives with souls (what a horrible trapped existence). It wouldn't really matter to discard them, it would be like setting them free if you took a more spirtual view of them. Either way, I don't think the over-population argument is a good way to vote to throw them out. Our planet is not overpopulated...our people are greedy and selfish. There is more than enough to go around on the planet, just because others suffer in the world is not an excuse to condemn those who create ne wlife. I'm not saying there aren't irresponible parents who probably didn't need to have kids, but at the end of the day life is just a learning experience.

Bon L.
Bon L8 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Lepidopter Phoenyx

A clump of 32 cells in a petri dish is not a person.

Brenda Rogers
Brenda Rogers8 years ago

I just find it hard to accept the process of embryos grown in a lab. Maybe, I am old fashioned, maybe I am overwhelmed with the ethical ramifications. Are embryos human beings? Do they have souls? It can be quite confusing. Disposal of them seems immoral too.

colleen p.
colleen p8 years ago

animal rights wackjobs would love to use those embryos to spare the life of a mouse and test on those

Suzen R.
Suzen R8 years ago

That is where the stem cells come from. They could be used to save lives. I hope they will no longer be tossed in the trash.