Germany has to deal with an unresolved problem that has received little attention for decades. It is about the sensitive issue of fertilized egg cells that are left over after artificial insemination. What happens to them when the family planning of an involuntarily childless couple is completed?
The egg cells are stored frozen in the centers for reproductive medicine and await further use. Such unplanned, supernumerary embryos are regularly produced in Germany during the course of artificial insemination treatment, which can then be frozen at the request of the couple wishing to have children. No one knows exactly how many there are because they are not officially counted. Horst Dreier, a lawyer and legal philosopher at the University of Würzburg, estimates their number at “probably 50,000, maybe double or triple that”.
In many other countries, laws allow surplus embryos to be used for high-level research purposes with parental consent. Prior to this, an independent ethics committee must assess the scientific question as important enough as part of a case-by-case decision.
30-year-old regulation for embryos is under criticism
In Germany it is different. The Embryo Protection Act prohibits research on embryos. This scheme is more than 30 years old and is therefore subject to criticism. Science and reproductive medicine have new insights, both doctors and researchers are calling for the law to be updated in line with the times. Research on embryos is only one aspect of the debate about the Embryo Protection Act. Other issues are the ban on surrogacy or the donation of egg cells to infertile women, which, unlike sperm donation, is prohibited in Germany.
Jürgen Knoblich, a molecular biologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, is convinced that research on embryos is justified. “We don’t really understand human development in its early stages because we can’t do the research,” Knoblich said Leopoldina event on the Embryo Protection Act. In addition to basic research, the German scientist also named two practical examples of high-level research goals.
One could develop a successor to the pill as a contraceptive if one knew more about how the implantation of the fertilized egg works in the uterus. “Preventing this process would be a scientifically promising approach to contraception,” he said. The hormones currently used for contraception, some of which have severe side effects, are anything but optimal. Couples without children could also benefit from better knowledge about implantation of the egg cell and the success rates of artificial insemination could be improved. “Their efficiency is so low because we can’t research them. We don’t understand these processes enough,” said Knoblich. In addition, the research could clarify the suspected connection between nutrition in the very first weeks of pregnancy and the later risk of the child for cardiovascular diseases.
Adoption of embryos is not clearly regulated
But this idea is met with contradiction. “Embryo research is consuming research,” notes the moral theologian Kerstin Schlögl-Flierl clear, “the fact that supernumerary embryos exist does not mean that they can be used.” Already the planned or planned planned excess of embryos, in which more embryos are produced than transferred during artificial insemination, is difficult to justify morally. The professor at the University of Augsburg also calls for the adoption of these embryos to be made easier for other couples who do not want to have children.
The adoption of embryos from the laboratory is still rare in Germany and is not clearly regulated in the Embryo Protection Act. Embryo donation is also mentioned as a goal in the coalition agreement, but even if the law is amended: In 2020, 3,774 children and young people adopted in Germany, far too little as a solution for the future of more than 50,000 surplus embryos. “The fact that the adoption has not yet succeeded to the extent that we would like does not speak against this practice,” said the former bishop of the Evangelical Church, Martin Hein. Nevertheless, embryos will probably remain. Unlike in the past, Hein no longer fundamentally rejects research on embryos that is restricted by clear guidelines. “Cryopreservation is a strange way of dealing with potential life,” he explained.
It is not only the discussion at the Leopoldina that shows that there is no satisfactory solution for the surplus embryos. Sometimes they are simply discarded, which means they are not further cooled and thus destroyed. In addition, it is urgently necessary to clarify when protection should begin. The legal philosopher Horst Dreier distinguishes between “human life and human being”. He sees the blastocyst in the first days of development as species-specific life, but not yet as an individual, because after that the embryo could still form identical twins.
When should embryo protection begin?
The question of when protection begins is answered differently in the different cultures of the world anyway. An international proposal by high-ranking scientists for research on embryos therefore does not provide for a deadline by which researchers can use the nascent life. Some groups suggest 14 days, others 28 days. After all, the directive clearly prohibits the creation of a designer baby by genetic modification.
In Knoblich’s view, the debate on surplus embryos is urgently needed. Where it is permitted, research on embryos is currently at a stage “where revolutionary results will soon come.” However, Germany can also wait and see – and still use the results of research on embryos from other countries, even though the underlying research would not be allowed in Germany. “We will then benefit as free riders from developments abroad,” said Horst Dreier.