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Title: Donation of 'spare' fresh or frozen embryos to research: Who decides that an embryo is 'spare' and how can we enhance the quality and protect the validity of consent?
Authors: Scott, R
Williams, C
Ehrich, K
Farsides, B
Keywords: Donation of fresh or frozen embryos to research including stem-cell research;Quality and validity of consent for donation of embryos to research;Ethical and legal issues in donation of fresh or frozen embryos to research
Issue Date: 2012
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Citation: Medical Law Review, 20(3): 255 - 303, Sep 2012
Abstract: This paper analyses elements of the legal process of consent to the donation of ‘spare’ embryos to research, including stem-cell research, and makes a recommendation intended to enhance the quality of that process, including on occasion by guarding against the invalidity of such consent. This is important in its own right and also so as to maximise the reproductive treatment options of couples engaged in in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment and to avoid possible harms to them. In Part 1, with reference to qualitative data from three UK IVF clinics, we explore the often delicate and contingent nature of what comes to be, for legal purposes, a ‘spare’ embryo. The way in which an embryo becomes ‘spare’, with its implications for the process of consent to donation to research, is not addressed in the relevant reports relating to or codes of practice governing the donation of embryos to research, which assume an unproblematic notion of the ‘spare’ embryo. Significantly, our analysis demonstrates that there is an important and previously unrecognised first stage in the donation of a ‘spare’ embryo to research, namely: consent to an embryo being ‘spare’ and so, at the same time, to its disuse in treatment. This is not explicitly covered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990, as amended by the HFE Act 2008. Having identified this important initial stage in the process of consent to the donation of a ‘spare’ embryo to research in conclusion to Part 1, in Part 2 we analyse the idea of consent to an embryo's disuse in treatment on the basis that it is ‘spare’ with reference to the legal elements of consent, namely information as to nature and purpose, capacity, and voluntariness. We argue that there are in fact three related consent processes in play, of which the principal one concerns consent to an embryo's disuse in treatment. If the quality of this first consent is compromised, in turn this will impact on the quality of the consent to the donation of that ‘spare’ embryo to research, followed by the quality of consent to future cycles of assisted reproduction treatment in the event that these are needed as a result of a donation decision. The analysis overall is of central relevance to the debate as to whether, and if so when, it should be permissible to request the donation of fresh embryos for research, as opposed to those that have been frozen and, for instance, have reached the end of their statutory storage term. This has a particular bearing on the donation of embryos to stem-cell research since there is a debate as to whether fresh embryos are most useful for this.
Description: This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited - Copyright @ The Author 2012.
ISSN: 0967-0742
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