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Deciding the fate of disputed embryos: ethical issues in the case of Natallie Evans

Abstract

Background

A number of disputes have arisen in recent years over the status of non-transferred embryos cryopreserved during in vitro fertilisation. One such case is that of Natallie Evans who in April 2007 lost her final attempt to prevent the destruction of embryos created with the sperm of her former partner. Ms Evans had been rendered infertile by cancer treatment, and the embryos represented her only chance of having genetically related children.

Discussion

Arguments over stored embryos often conflate different concepts of parenthood. The effects of 'forcing' genetic parenthood on a man are mistakenly presented as being analogous with forcing women to bear children. Likewise, there is a tendency to assume that genetic parenthood necessarily involves legal, financial and psychological implications. Men (or women) who object to becoming parents should be encouraged to specify which aspects of parenthood they regard as being harmful. While the financial or physical burdens of forced parenthood involve objective harms, the putative psychological harms of enforced genetic parenthood are subjective, and this distinction should be recognised. Popular beliefs about genetic parenthood perpetuate the kinds of subjective concerns expressed by Ms Evans' partner, but the concept of genetic parenthood itself may come under pressure in the face of future technological developments.

Summary

Historical legal requirements obliging men to provide for their genetic offspring still pervade in the law. These perceptions are becoming outmoded in context of rapidly-moving reproductive technologies. To avoid disputes greater flexibility is required. The economic and legal components of parenthood should be negotiable in cases where disputes arise, and should not be assumed to flow inexorably from genetic paternity. To reduce the chances of disputes arising, consent protocols for cryopreservation of non-transferred embryos should be refined. Couples should address the possibility of divorce or the breakup of their relationships, and should be made aware that embryos can be destroyed at the behest of either party in these circumstances.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Mark Cutter for helpful advice and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Anna Smajdor.

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Smajdor, A. Deciding the fate of disputed embryos: ethical issues in the case of Natallie Evans . J Exp Clin Assist Reprod 4, 2 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-1050-4-2

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