Hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos ‘forgotten’ by their ‘parents’ reveals dilemma of hospitals in keeping them
Published: Jan 19, 2021 08:20 PM

Photos of frozen embryo center of Henan Provincial Reproductive Hospital: provided by Zhang Cuilian

In several reproductive centers in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Central China's Henan Province, hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos were sleeping quietly, some even for over a decade.

The hospitals cannot reach the parents of these embryos with no one showing up to renew the preservation fee, experts said.

"At present, there are about 100,000 frozen embryos stored in the reproductive center of our hospital that have not had the preservation fee paid. The fees of about 80,000 frozen embryos have not been renewed for more than a year," said Zhang Cuilian to the Global Times on Monday. She is an expert in reproductive medicine and also the executive vice president of Henan Provincial Reproductive Hospital in Zhengzhou.

Preserving embryos is an extremely costly project for these hospitals. A large amount of investment is required to be put into the monitoring of equipment, the consumption of liquid nitrogen, in addition to the maintenance of constant temperature and humidity conditions in the storage space.

The long-term preservation of such a large amount of "forgotten" embryos has caused a huge waste of medical and social resources, local media said.

However, since there are no clear legal requirements and out of the consideration of humane care, hospitals have dared not to destroy these "forgotten" embryos. Hospitals are caught in a dilemma of whether to keep these embryos or not.

A long-existing phenomenon

For some couples who have difficulties giving birth, in vitro fertilization (IVF) as a kind of assisted reproductive technology, gives them the chance to become parents. 

"In IVF, generally we will take about a dozen eggs from a young woman to form five to eight embryos. In one transfer, we use one or two embryos for the birth of one child, with the remaining embryos preserved for later use," Zhang Cuilian told the Global Times.

However, after storing the embryos in the reproductive center, there are some couples that have not shown up to renew the reservation fee, it seems that these embryos are "left and forgotten" by them. 

"Some couples may feel that they don't want these embryos anyway and leave them to the hospital (for disposal)," Zhang told the Global Times.

"Most hospitals, not only hospitals in Zhengzhou, but also reproductive centers in other places in China, chose to preserve overdue embryos," Zhang said to the reporter.

After some research, the Global Times found that a similar phenomenon has existed in other domestic hospitals for a long time.

On December 14, 2020, the 73rd Army Hospital of the PLA issued a notice on its official WeChat account, which said "The Urology and Reproductive Medicine Center of our hospital has tens of thousands of in vitro embryos formed every year. Since the founding of the center nearly 20 years ago, about 100,000 frozen embryos are now preserved in the center, which uses up a lot of medical resources."

The center plans to uniformly dispose of overdue frozen embryos. The first batch to be disposed of would be the embryos that have been preserved in this center before 2010 without a renewed preservation fee, read the notice.

The reporter tried to contact the reproductive center of the hospital, and a staffer of the center confirmed to the Global Times that the notice was indeed issued by the center, which has attracted a lot of attention from the media since then.

The notice added, those who do not come to the hospital within one month after the announcement was issued are deemed to have given up their embryos preserved in the center.

According to Xinhua News Agency, in several hospitals in Beijing, Anhui, and Hubei Province, a large amount of embryos which did not have their preservation fees renewed were still being preserved, considering the potential legal risks and humane care.

Hospitals' dilemma

The Global Times found that although many embryos are "left and forgotten" by their parents for different reasons, doctors often dared not to discard these embryos.

"To discard extra embryos after one transfer is a waste of resources. If the couple want to have another baby, they need to do it all over again, which will not only cost a lot of money, but also may see lower-quality embryos missing the most fertile years," Zhang explained to the Global Times. "It is recommended that extra embryos be preserved in the hospital after one transfer."

The Global Times learned that in Zhang's hospital, the cost of retrieving eggs is about 40,000 yuan ($6153.64), while the preservation fee for embryos of each couple is only 90 yuan ($13.87) per month.

When preserving the extra embryos, the hospital will firstly sign an agreement with the couple, requesting the couple to pay the reservation fee for each three or six months, or explain their willingness to the hospital of how they want to deal with frozen embryos in the next period, Zhang introduced.

"It was clearly stated in the agreement that the hospital has the right to dispose of overdue embryos that have not had the preservation fee extended for more than one year," Zhang said to the Global Times. "But out of humane care, we still preserve the embryos, thinking that the couple would come back to express their willingness in person," said Zhang.

"We should first determine how the hospital and the couple agree on how to deal with the overdue fee in the contract, when discussing whether the hospital has the right to destroy embryos that have not had their preservation fee renewed" Chen Hao, a lawyer from Shaanxi Dezun Law Firm, told the reporter.

"If there is an agreement signed between the hospital and the couple, and the agreement does not violate the mandatory provisions of laws and administrative regulations, the hospital actually has the right to dispose of the embryos in accordance with the agreement," Chen added.

The Global Times also contacted the Maternal and Child Health Care of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, a staffer said that if the reservation fee is not renewed for more than three months, the center has the right to dispose of the overdue embryos.

However, the staffer told the Global Times that at present, the center is still keeping overdue embryos which have not had their fees renewed for more than four months.

"The management of embryos is very strict, using embryos for trading is not in compliance with the law, and hospitals are not allowed to do this," Zhang told the Global Times.

For couples who agree to destroy their embryos, they should come to the hospital in person, bringing with them their marriage certificates and ID cards, and proceeding to sign a statement agreeing to destroying their embryos.

Another option is to donate their embryos for medical research, but the couple should also sign an agreement of consent.

"(We hope) the patients can tell us their thoughts in time. If they are sure that they will not use their extra embryos again, they can come over to the center in person, and the center will destroy these embryos while they are there," Zhang said. "At least, the couples should let the hospital know their thoughts about how to deal with their embryos."

"If the couples still cannot be contacted, the hospital may consider to issue an announcement in the future, stating that these overdue frozen embryos will be collectively disposed one year after the announcement," Zhang told the Global Times.