Couples may adopt orphan embryos

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Childless couples could be offered one or more of 3,000 frozen embryos in storage at fertility clinics where contact has been lost with the biological parents, it has been suggested.

Health ministers are considering the "adoption" proposal made by Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), described as a non-religious, non-political lobby group which wants more open discussion of the ethical issues surrounding test-tube babies and other fertility treatments.

Alternatively, Core is suggesting that the abandoned embryos are made wards of court so that their status can be established, and they become the responsibility of the court.

It emerged recently that fertility clinics are unable to contact the owners or parents of at least 3,000 frozen embryos created when couples had fertility treatment up to five years ago. The surplus embryos were held in storage in case the couples wanted to extend their families.

However, current legislation dictates that the embryos should be destroyed after five years although Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, has indicated that new regulations will allow embryos to be stored for up to10 years. Core says more debate is necessary.

David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP, earlier this week tabled an early day motion criticising the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the licensing body for fertility clinics, which has recommended the extension of storage.

Mr Alton's motion attacks the "slipshod" way the HFEA recommendation was made, and calls on the Government to consider carefully the fate of "orphaned embryos."

It adds: "The creation of surplus human embryos, and the loss of information identifying their parents, entirely discredits the authority as an appropriate body to recommend on their future."