3,300 embryos like this will have to perish. Massacre or common sense?

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The Independent Online
The age-old question of what constitutes human life faces a critical test next week when 3,300 embryos frozen for couples undergoing fertility treatment are destroyed on government orders.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryological Authority (HFEA) says that under present law, frozen embryos - consisting of four or eight cells - must be allowed to perish after five years unless the parents consent to further storage. The problem is that the 900 parents of these embryos have been untraceable or refused to reply.

The Vatican and pro-life organisations called the move "pre-natal massacre" and a "discarding of ... abandoned human beings". The HFEA said it was preferable to allowing people to "adopt" such embryos, which would be ethically and legally wrong. Five British couples want to "adopt" an embryo, according to the national pro-life charity Life.

Embryo freezing began in 1983, because in-vitro fertilisation usually produces more embryos than can be put back into the womb. It is estimated around 60,000 embryos are in storage, of which 9,000 were frozen before August 1991.

"The fundamental question is how these embryos are to be regarded," said Ian Kennedy, professor of medical law and ethics at King's College, London. "Are they regarded as pieces of property or potential people? And does the embryo belong to someone if they are potential people?"

Pro-life campaigners say life begins at the moment of conception, so destroying an embryo destroys a human. Their opponents say a day-old embryo cannot be considered a person, and storing embryos for years or allowing others to implant them without parental consent is far more reprehensible.

It was the first time the HFEA had confirmed that more than 3,000 embryos - a third of those that fall into the five-year limit - were due to perish because clinics had failed to trace 650 couples and 260 couples had refused to reply to registered letters.

"The regulations now allow many patients to extend their consent to 10 years or more," said Ruth Deech, HFEA chairperson. "But if that consent cannot be obtained the storage has to cease, which means, sadly, allowing a number of embryos to perish. But if you think through the other options, of using them without the consent of individuals, or of keeping them stored indefinitely, these options are far less acceptable."

The embryos, no bigger than a pinhead, will be thawed out and a drop of water or alcohol added to destroy them. They will then be incinerated. A Life spokesman said the practice "trivialised human life by simply throwing away spares".

"The code of practice requires that embryos created by in-vitro fertilisation should be 'allowed to perish' ... in a respectful and 'sensitive' way. But what is respectful and sensitive about throwing these tiny human beings into incinerators along with dirty swabs and bits and pieces from operating theatres? They are not things. They are human beings."

Yesterday L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said: "This means that from today on, each year, tens of thousands of embryos will be destroyed, tens of thousands of innocent lives will be cut short by law. This is a pre-natal massacre, a massacre not only tolerated but programmed and ordered by the same civil legislatures transformed ... into an instrument of perverse logic of violence and death."

But Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, said that embryos could not be considered in the same way as a child after birth: "There is an incremental growth in human rights, not a fixed quantum deposited at the moment of conception which never changes."

And Susan Rice, head of Issue, the National Fertility Association, said: "There was always going to be a time when a decision would have to be made about what to do with them. These embryos are not children; they are a couple's potential to have children. When they are destroyed it is the potential that has gone."