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The Question of Extra Embryos

One of my chief tasks throughout the year is to attempt to connect with former patients who still have unused frozen embryos at USC Fertility.

Some of these embryos are over 20 years old, created in the very early stages of in vitro fertilization treatment, when it was still “new” and even sometimes considered “experimental”—and before we had state-of-the-art databases to keep addresses and phone numbers of former patients current.

While I do maintain a database of everyone who has ever had embryos stored here, one of my biggest challenges is reaching patients who have relocated and with whom we’ve lost contact.

Over the last month or so I’ve been successful in tracking down a few of them, and it’s always so exciting to speak to them again after all this time. Then there’s the question: “Do you know you have frozen embryos here?” And its follow-up: “Do you have any thoughts about what you would want to do with them?”

Many of these patients now have children in college—and have long since moved on from the period in their life when they were on a quest to start (or add to) their family.

No matter what, it’s really quite a difficult decision, and most patients understandably struggle with making it.

A large number want to donate their embryos to stem cell research. Fortunately, the University of Southern California actually has a stem cell committee (of which Dr. Paulson is part), and it is creating a research protocol. So that is very promising for those who wish for their embryos to be used in this manner.

Other patients would like to give other couples a chance to have a family, and choose to donate their embryos. We currently work with the National Embryo Donation Center, which facilitates these gifts on behalf of our patients.

Some patients are still in a child-rearing age group and decide they’d like to come back in and try again for another baby.

I once was able to locate a patient after 10 years of embryo storage. She and her husband had adopted a child since the time they had stopped their fertility treatments. They decided to come back and have one last embryo transfer with the embryos that had been stored here for 10 years. Well, wouldn’t you know—she got pregnant! I love that story. It’s so amazing how they had moved on, adopted a beautiful child, were so happy…and then they receive a call from a relative stranger (me!) reminding them of embryos they had pushed to the back of their minds. They were able to add to their family in a way they never imagined possible. That will always be a very special memory for me.

A few patients can’t quite decide what to do, so they continue to store their embryos here. It’s a service we will provide forever if that’s our patient’s wish.

Still other patients decide that what is best for them is to dispose of their embryos.

It’s all a matter of personal choice, and here at USC Fertility we respect whatever conclusion our patients come to.

Regardless of which options someone ultimately settles on, it’s not something to be taken lightly, so we try to make the process as stress-free as possible.

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