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Test Tube Ethics

Some couples pay the hefty price of storing frozen embryos, despite increasing pressure to donate them for scientific research.

"Do not murder" seems to set forth a pretty clear ethical boundary. But what happens when science, ethics, and theology meet in one of the ever-expanding gray areas of modern medicine?

President Obama's March 9 decision to open up federal funding to previously unapproved stem-cell lines has brought the related issue of frozen embryos back into the national conversation. Bob Smietana at The Tennesseanrecently reported on couples who choose to keep embryos in storage despite increasing pressure to give excess embryos for research purposes. Smietana says an estimated 500,000 embryos are frozen in storage - "leftovers" from in-vitro fertilization. Some are being saved for possible implantation, while some are kept because the donors cannot bear to have them destroyed or given away.

But holding an embryo in storage is no cheap investment, costing anywhere from $200 to $700 per year. Many couples pay because they don't want to give the embryos up for adoption (fewer than 10 percent do) or they hope to have another child in the future (50 percent). A small percentage leave the embryos to die by natural causes, whatever that may look like (no one's quite sure yet), while about 20 percent intend to donate the embryos to research.

Here's where the line gets blurry: What happens when science can, in some sense, give life, but doing so involves a high proportion of lives stuck in a freezer for the foreseeable future? And what are our obligations ...

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