The US debate over embryonic stem cell research centres on the sanctity of life.
But the couples who create the leftover embryos would rather they be destroyed in the course of scientific research than be given a chance at becoming babies, a new study from Duke University Medical Centre has found.
The study, released this morning, says 41% of patients who had finished fertility treatment would seriously consider donating their embryos for stem cell research. An additional 12% preferred to discard the embryos. Only 16% said they would be willing to donate the unused embryos to another couple, the sole option that would avoid destroying them.
"The national debate presumes that if you care about and respect a human embryo, you would want that embryo to have a chance at life," said Dr Anne Drapkin Lyerly, a Duke obstetrician and ethicist who led the study. "What we found was that people cared very much about what happened to their embryos, but one of their significant concerns was that their embryos not become children in families other than their own."
Lyerly surveyed about 1,000 couples who had frozen embryos in storage at nine fertility clinics across the country, including one at Duke. She says it is the only large, comprehensive study of the way fertility patients deal with their unused embryos.
Jacqueline Betancourt, a study participant, said donating her embryos for research seemed like the only way to avoid wasting their potential.
"The thought of throwing an embryo away just isn't a pleasant thought," Betancourt said. "It seemed wrong ... Given all the developments you hear about with stem cell research, it felt like that truly was a potential good for society."
Betancourt, who has two children conceived through fertility treatment, said she wasn't concerned about scientists destroying a potential life. "If you take the emotion out of it, rationally, at the stage they were frozen, they really were just a group of cells," she said.
The study found that many patients struggled, often for years after completing treatment, to choose between unappealing options for their embryos. That indecision is likely among the reasons that there are now at least a half million frozen embryos in the USt, many of which have been in storage for years.
The embryos, created by doctors from a couple's sperm and egg, are circular clusters of about 200 cells. Embryonic cells are especially valuable for research, because they can turn into any of the body's more than 200 cell types. They can be used to study confounding diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
But the idea of using human embryos for science - and destroying them in the process - has stirred a national controversy since it was first tried in 1998. President George Bush has barred federal funding of research using new embryos and restricted funding for the embryonic stem cell lines already in use.
In donating them to science, Betancourt took advantage of an option that many fertility patients aren't offered. While some fertility clinics offer research donation, there is not yet broad demand for embryos.
Dr Brigid Hogan, chair of the department of cell biology at Duke University, said there is not enough funding available to fully research the embryonic stem cell lines already available to scientists. Until there is, there will be little use for the hundreds of thousands of available embryos.
Only one scientist at Duke is now working with embryonic stem cells, she said.
"Even if somebody said, 'I've got 100 embryos I'm donating tomorrow,' I think there are many places that would just say, 'We don't have the funding,'" Hogan said.
Lyerly said another discovery in the study is that many couples never have conversations with their doctors about the possibilities for their embryos. Most have only three choices: use them for treatment, destroy them or continue to store them indefinitely.
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