The Cultural Dilemma of Embryo Banks

A quick look into the world’s weirdest bank and the ethical issues around it

The world is known for its vast array of weird quirks and oddities, and one of it involves the list of various banks that decorate our global system. The most common ones are of course banks that are associated with financial matters — retail banks, investment banks, national banks, everybody knows the sort. But thread over to the bottom of the list and you’ll come across largely unheard of terms like seed banks, sperm banks, and you guessed it — embryo banks.

Embryo banks may sound like it came straight off a sci-fi thriller, but it is actually quite a common thing in the developed world. They are facilities that specialise in the storage of embryos — the product of a fusion between a female and male gamete — to save them for the prospect of future use.

You may ask, but why is this even being done? Why do we need to store the embryos? Why not just inseminate them to a woman directly? There are of course a thousand other questions that could stem from the idea of cryopreserving or freezing a human progenitor, but the concept of embryo banking was born (pun not intended) in the 1900s, as a form of treatment to infertility.

If you’re familiar with infertility, you have probably heard of the term IVF, or in-vitro fertilisation at some point in your life, be it on a YouTube video, the news, or the radio. It’s one of the most widely known treatment method for infertility, which involves extraction of a female egg and a male sperm, and fusing them in a petri dish under closely controlled lab conditions, instead of the natural route of fertilisation which occurs, well, inside the human body. Embryo banking is a subtype of IVF.

What are the benefits of cryopreservation?

“Cryopreservation may play a role in space exploration and migration to distant planets”

Infertility is an issue of either quantity, quality, or a mix of both. A woman may be infertile because she is not producing enough eggs, or the eggs she does produce are non-viable for fertilisation and hence, implantation. When doctors decide to put females into treatment using artificial reproductive technology (ART), said females are usually given a dose of drugs called gonadotropins to help them superovulate, or in other words, produce more eggs than is usually produced by the natural route, equalling a higher chance that one of these eggs are viable for fertilisation. Cryopreservation allows multiple eggs from drug-induced super-ovulation to be stored prior to eventual insemination, as a ‘safety net’ should one of the chosen eggs be deemed non-viable.

A study done by John Robertson in 1987 have outlined the various other advantages to cryopreserving embryos. For one, Robertson says that by ensuring more embryos for transfer, cryopreservation is expected to increase pregnancies per laparoscopy by 8-12%. By increasing the success rate of these procedures, he adds that patients will also find the reduced physical, psychological, and financial costs of IVF treatment on subsequent cycles attractive.

In the same study, genetic researcher Clifford Grobstein claims that cryopreservation may play a role in space exploration and migration to distant planets. Sounds like a brave claim, but from where we stand now, the prospect doesn’t seem too unlikely.

The advantages sound doubtlessly promising, even to ART skeptics, but as with most novel things, they come with a set of dilemmas and controversies. Here are some.

The dilemmas

In a subsection of his research paper, John Robertson mentions the various ethical issues that go hand in hand with this practice. “A major issue is whether freeze-thawing of human embryos produced a higher rate of abnormal or defective births and thus will damage resulting offspring”, he argues. At the same time, he says that inadvertent and inevitable termination of some embryos will occur in the process.

Another ethical dilemma is the psychological effect on the successful offsprings that stem from this procedure. “If the period of suspension were long, it could lead to rearing by older parents or non-biologically related persons”, says Robertson. In a broader sense, imagine the child being bullied in school because his friends discovered that he was a freeze-thawed biological product from 30 years back — definitely not an ideal situation.

And of course, we haven’t even come to the never-ending arguments about the theological and philosophical concerns surrounding IVF, or any other ART methods for that matter. Many cultures argue against the idea of artificial involvement in reproduction, and although the counter argument is simply that individuals who find the practice objectionable need not participate, the implications surrounding the possibility of delaying implantation in embryo banking, which may result in embryo donation and gestational surrogacy, makes it a much tougher case to argue about.

The elephant in the room

But benefits and dilemmas aside, I still don’t think we’ve reached the peak of this argument.

This still experimental procedure, in all its foreseeable benefits and appeal in the current trend of increasing infertility rates, will probably start spreading into the rooms and refrigerators of many IVF facilities and clinics around the globe. Fast forward 10 years and what we will probably end up with are fridges packed full with viable eggs and embryos that are never going to be implanted — blown up to a worldwide scale.

This will undeniably trigger a barrage of controversies, questions, and arguments about the issue at hand. And just as we know the apocalyptic implications of climate change should the working ways of the world not change soon, we know that geneticists, doctors, and the general public will soon be dealt with answering the inevitable question.

“What do we do with these embryos?”

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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