The end of an embryo: what should we call that?

On the nuances of leftover embryos.

2 minute 30 second read.

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When embryos are no longer needed

A recent discussion, called "Donate, destroy or delay? When IVF embryos are no longer needed for treatment," presented by the UK's Progress Educational Trust, explored challenges around deciding what to do with excess embryos. Watch the entire discussion, available on YouTube.

What I want to highlight today, however, are two of the interesting questions raised by audience members after the formal talks were done. (The Q&A starts at minute 46:05.)

One question was about the options available to families dealing with embryos they no longer need. Usually those options include things like donating them to others, donating them to research or discarding them. But someone asked this: Why can't patients take their embryos home with them and allow them to perish in a respectful way of their choosing? 

I had not actually thought about that as an option, but it strikes me as an appealing one. Just as I could not bring myself to discard my daughters' placentas — they are buried under a cherry tree planted in their honour — I believe I would have trouble casually discarding an embryo. There is something oddly sacred about reproductive tissue. Being able to mark an embryo's passing with a ceremony might help a person to grieve. Interestingly, although in some instances fetal tissue from abortions can be taken home, the UK law stands firm on not allowing embryos the same fate.

Another question was about language — and it challenged the very title of the talk, suggesting that "destroy" is an insensitive word to use in this context. But what is the appropriate wording to use?

Here are some terms that are in use today:



"allow to perish"


"humanely discard"

"remove from storage"

"let go"

Everyone agreed the words we use are important, but there was no consensus on what they should be. Euphemisms are often unhelpful. Sometimes direct is best. We need to hear more from patients.

Thoughts? Send me a note here or on Twitter @HeyReprotech 

Related links

Joanne Delange. "Donate, Destroy or Delay? When IVF Embryos Are No Longer Needed for Treatment." BioNews. 05 October, 2020. 

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