WORDS TO WATCH Some words used in IVF should make you ask, “What does that mean?


An IVF disposition option. Frozen embryos are thawed and transferred into the woman’s body at a time when they are unlikely to implant.

Ex. “When my friend was done with IVF, her solution to the excess* embryos was to have them thawed and transferred when she was least likely to get pregnant.

*“Excess embryo” is a term heard too often in IVF, and is in fact a contradiction to the existence of the human person. A human embryo is a human being, and every human being, regardless of age, is fully a human person endowed with both body and spirit. No matter the method of conception, every conceived human being exists, and his or her existence is known and willed by God beyond all time. He or she has an eternal purpose and destination. It is not possible for a human person to exist “in excess.”

Psalm 139:16.Your eyes beheld my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

“Words to Watch” is usually a brief feature in the SHG newsletter that explains a term or phrase unique to Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART; e.g., IVF). But because “compassionate transfer” is an IVF disposition option (though rare relative to other options), I wanted to spend some time showing how the meaning and scope of IVF disposition differs from “final disposition.”

In any situation other than IVF, we generally understand that selecting a disposition option means determining the final way in which the body of a deceased human being is handled, thus the term “final disposition.” Traditions and customs vary, but final disposition is an act that honors the life of the deceased individual and can provide meaning and comfort to those who knew them. 

IVF disposition means something different altogether. Most notably, the object of IVF disposition options are young people who are not yet dead. Even when entered into with the intention of only creating as many embryos as they can raise, most IVF participants will have remaining embryos in frozen storage when they are done with the procedures. They could continue to pay for the embryos’ storage (approx. $400/year) long into the future, but it seems most feel that, at some point, dispensing of their embryonic children is something they must do.

IVF centers typically present three IVF disposition options to clients who have embryos they don’t intend to transfer: (A) thaw and discard; (B) donate to research; (C) donate to another person (see below for comments on the term “donate”).

A human embryo is fully a human being whose life has already begun. And although cryopreservation imposes a “pause,” (a dangerous one at that, as it is possible for the embyro to die at freeze or thaw due to the challenges of the procedure or because of human negligence), if the embryo survives and is transferred to a uterus, chances are that he or she will resume life’s journey.

With the exception of donating to another person, IVF disposition authorizes the death of a human being. It’s not hard to imagine how difficult it is to make this decision. Consequently, some find that they cannot decide, leaving the fate of their embryos to the lab. For this reason, most IVF centers require patients to choose a disposition method before IVF can start.

Occasionally people ask for alternative IVF disposition options, like compassionate transfer, though not all clinics will fulfill this request. People who have dispensed of their embryos by compassionate transfer say it is a “personal” or “natural” alternative to thaw and discard in that it mimics a “failed IVF cycle” or an early miscarriage. But, while dispensing of an embryo in this manner may bring comfort to the family, it is still a decision that ends the life of a human being.

SHG has deep compassion for anyone whose embryonic children died in the lab (for any number of reasons, including as the result of an IVF disposition choice) or are still in frozen storage. The desperation that comes with infertility combined with minimal (if any) clinic-provided education about the embryo’s humanity made it nearly impossible for them – at the start of IVF – to  comprehend the gravity of this unintended consequence.

People have told us that they suffer from grief or guilt long after IVF was complete; these feelings are further complicated if IVF resulted in a live born child. Professional counseling can offer a path to healing. For Catholics, we highly recommend talking to your priest. Most priests are familiar with IVF and can help you find peace. Finally, SHG wants to join our prayers with yours. Let us know your intention (privacy and anonymity respected): https://sacredheartguardians.org/services/prayer/.

The ART industry favors the term “donation,” claiming that embryo “adoption” is “inaccurate and should be avoided” (ASRM 2016 Ethics Committee opinion; https://bit.ly/2HWhZam).  But an embyro is not part of a human (like a kidney). He or she is already a unique, complete (for his or her stage of development) member of our human family. It is a dangerous idea to think that some human beings can be “donated.”

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