UK scientists can’t wait to get their hands on thousands of frozen human embryos

By Michael Cook

It’s hard to find a better case study of how experts exploit the media and democratic procedures to advance unethical agendas than the push in the United Kingdom to create “embryo banks” for scientific research.

This might seem like a niche topic, but bear with us. Stupendously important issues concerning human dignity are at stake.

The story begins with an unexpected setback for stem cell scientists in the UK. According to a report in The Guardian, donations of “spare” IVF human embryos to scientific research have nosedived over the past 15 years. The latest available figures show that 17,925 embryos were donated in 2004, and only 675 in 2019.

The reasons for the decline are complex. The Guardian cites “increasing commercialisation of IVF, overstretched NHS [National Health Service] clinics and cumbersome paperwork.” 

Where do these embryos come from? When couples begin the IVF process, their clinics create a number of embryos. One or two are implanted and the “spares” are frozen. According to The Times (London), 100,000 embryos are created every year in the UK. A 2021 study estimated that half a million embryos are now in storage.

Let that sink in. There are half a million human beings at the most vulnerable stage of their life — frozen in canisters of liquid nitrogen. Do we uphold human dignity by assuming that the best use for them is to turn them into raw material for scientists to tinker with?

Why do scientists want them? Embryo research is heavily regulated in the UK, but they are in great demand for investigating human development, testing drugs, and researching genetic disease. They are a valuable commodity.

Leading stem cell scientist Kathy Niakan, of the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian that she is frustrated at the waste of premier research material. “There are tens of thousands of good quality embryos that are no longer needed by patients which could be incredibly valuable for research,” she said.

Another reason is prestige. The UK’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, supports the country’s science establishment. It is lobbying for changes to embryo regulation to make their work more productive. The HFEA says that “There is now a risk that the UK could lose its world-leading status in this area if changes are not considered.”

Amongst the 15 changes proposed by the HFEA is the creation of an embryo bank – a kind of warehouse to which couples can donate embryos so that scientists won’t risk losing their “world-leading status”. At the moment, couples must consent to specific research projects. It would be far easier for the scientists if they could just donate to an embryo bank which would allocate them as required.

This is creepy. Hundreds of thousands of frozen human embryos will be catalogued and pigeonholed so that researchers can use them to further the UK’s scientific prestige. It’s a hard sell. Often the couples find the decision distressing and put it off as long as possible. Whatever their views on personhood, those embryos were part of their dreams for forming a family. So the scientists and HFEA have embarked upon a cynical public relations campaign with three strategies.  

Editor’s note. This appeared at MercatorNet and reposted with permission.