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400,000 People and Counting

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

The bomb was no respecter of persons. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, a twenty-kiloton atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” was dropped from the Enola Gay, a Boeing-29 bomber, onto the town of Hiroshima. Described by many as the most horrific bomb ever used on humans, the bomb exploded with a blast stronger than any hurricane, giving off deadly rays of heat and blinding light. Those who did not perish from the initial blast were left to face a new and deadly danger—radiation. Invisible to the naked eye, waves of deadly radiation penetrated the bodies of all those in Hiroshima—from housewives carting groceries home, to shop owners, to governmental officials. As a result, it has been estimated that the initial blast from that bomb killed 80,000 people with an additional 20,000-50,000 perishing in the first few weeks that followed. By any account, the loss of human life in that southern Japanese community was ghastly.

For a moment, then, consider multiplying the deaths and loss that occurred at Hiroshima by a factor of three or four. How unspeakable would it be to sit by idly during “non-war” times and watch four bombs detonate over four cities, each resulting in 100,000 fatalities? The numbers would be staggering, and would incite rage in the hearts of many. And yet, that number is exactly how many frozen embryos were counted during a recent nationwide survey of American fertility clinics. Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss subtitled his report: “The first count found far more than many had thought. Conservatives and scientists are upset” (2003). Upset indeed! While these 400,000 precious souls may not enjoy the freedoms of walking, talking, and working in our society, it does very little to change the fact that they are very much human embryos.

David Hoffman and colleagues, in association with the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, carried out the national count. They reported that their objective was “to determine the number of embryos stored at assisted reproductive technology (ART) clinics in the United States and their current disposition” (Hoffman, et al., 2003, 79:1063). The researchers surveyed all medical practices providing in vitro fertilization in the United States. They noted:

The SART-RAND [SART—Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology; and RAND—a contraction of the term research and development—BH] team surveyed all 430 ART practices in the United States. Of these practices, 340 returned surveys for analysis. The data from these surveys were merged with data taken from the 1999 SART dataset, which contains information about practice size and success rates. Responding clinics reported a total of 396,526 embryos in storage as of April 11, 2002. The vast majority were targeted for patient use. Small numbers of embryos were available for research, donation, destruction, quality assurance, or other uses (p. 1063).

The fertility industry is booming. And sadly, only now are we slowing down enough to realize the catastrophic consequences. Those embryos that are “targeted for patient use” are being held for possible use by couples who already have undergone a fertility cycle—and many never will be used (considered as unneeded). Not wanting to make the wrong decision, couples choose not to make any decision. So they continue paying $1,500 per year until they can figure out exactly what to do with their nascent human life. Thus, fertility clinics are bulging with 400,000 frozen embryos, running out of storage room, and all-the-while praying they do not experience an accidental meltdown.

In their 1998 National Summary, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 61,650 cycles of artificial reproductive fertilization occurred in the United States (see CDCNational Summary, 1998). Today that number is estimated to be 100,000. On average, five-to-twelve eggs are fertilized in order to facilitate embryonic transfer, although it is not uncommon for some individuals to have at their disposal twenty or more embryos after artificial reproductive procedures. The CDC reports that in 1998, on average, physicians implanted only 3.7 embryos into women hoping to become pregnant. This would result in a minimum of 2-8 embryos being unused, and therefore being plunged into the freezing depths of liquid-nitrogen canisters.

When Rick Weiss wrote that both conservatives and scientists are upset, he was right—but not for the same reason. Conservatives realize that most of those human lives will one day be thawed out and “conveniently” discarded. Researchers, on the other hand, want the chance to utilize those 400,000 lives in stem cell experiments. Under the banner of “potential lifesaving benefits” these scientists are urging that clinics be allowed to make “unwanted” embryos available for research. However, they realize that President Bush’s August 9, 2001 ruling on stem-cell research prohibits federally funded research from using human embryos.

Previous estimates ranged anywhere from tens of thousands up to 200,000. We now know—of the 430 clinics surveyed, 340 admitted to housing almost 400,000 human embryos. The only thing that seems to be slowing these clinics down is lack of storage space. Of course, that problem will be easily overcome as cryogenic centers continue to raise their storage fees, causing more and more couples to choose a “thaw and discard” solution. With assisted reproductive technologies racing to increase their success rates, we will likely hit the one million mark in the very near future—all of this because we sat “idly by” and allowed researchers to go on advocating that embryos are not human life.

In addressing a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on April 23-24, 1981, Richard V. Jaynes stated: “To say that the beginning of human life cannot be determined scientifically is utterly ridiculous” (see East, 1981). Those hearings were carried out to determine the question of when human life begins. Accompanying Dr. Jaynes that day was a group of internationally known geneticists and biologists who conclusively reiterated that life begins at conception—and they told their story with a profound absence of opposing testimony. One of those giving testimony during that hearing was Landrum Shettles, often called the “father of in vitro fertilization.” Dr. Shettles noted: “Conception confers life and makes that life one of a kind” (East, 1981). Interesting words from a man who helped fill in vitro fertilization clinics with embryos—embryos that already have been fertilized and thus, in all aspects are human.

REFERENCES

CDC—National Summary (1998), “1998 Assisted Reproductive Technology Success Rates” [On-line], URL: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/drh/art98/PDF/art1998.pdf.

East, John (1981), Report of the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee [S-158], 97th Congress, first session.

Hoffman, David I., Gail L. Zellman, C. Christine Fair, Jacob Mayer, Joyce Zeitz, William E. Gibbons, and Thomas G. Turner Jr. (2003), “Cryopreserved Embryos in the United States and Their Availability for Research,” Fertility and Sterility, 79[5]:1063-1069, May.

Weiss, Rick (2003), “400,000 Embryos Frozen in U.S. Fertility Clinics,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, [On-line], URL: http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/living/health/conditions_diseases/infertility/5811658.htm.




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