The Arizona Institute of Reproductive Medicine has launched an unprecedented search for former patients whose sperm and embryos are still being held at the clinic.
Clinic founder Dr. Robert Tamis is about to retire and the 15-year-old clinic is set to close. Many of his patients have lost contact with the office, and clinic staff are at a loss about what to do with their specimens, still in tanks at the clinic. Correspondent Mike Levitt of CBS News affiliate KPHO-TV in Phoenix reports.
The 12 lines of tiny type in The Arizona Republic ran deep in the Sunday classifieds.
"If you feel you have embryos or sperms stored with Arizona Institute of Reproductive Medicine," the ad began, "please contact us immediately."
Experts say the notice, which appeared on June 27, may mark the first time a fertility clinic in the United States has asked donors to claim specimens.
Clinic workers are contacting patients to offer these choices: Have the embryos implanted in the next six months, transferred to storage at another clinic, or destroyed.
"The dilemma is that there's no place else that we can take them," says Kathy Fink, a patient coordinator at the clinic. "When Dr. Tamis retires, there will not be anyone here to monitor the tanks."
About 50 patients each have up to 16 frozen embryos at the clinic. Some 75 sperm samples also must be claimed.
Fink cannot say how many of those patients cannot yet be located, but she hopes the ad will help locate all of them or lighten any potential legal liability for the clinic.
When the clinic first began freezing embryos in the mid-1980s, patients never even considered this dilemma. Several years ago, Tamis' clinic and others across the country began asking patients to sign contracts spelling out the ultimate fate of any unclaimed embryos.
The clinic is in an all-out search, even for those who authorized the clinic to destroy their embryos under just such circumstances as these.
Some guidance does exist. In 1997, an ethics panel of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) concluded that clinics could destroy embryos unclaimed after five years.
But there's no legal precedent for Tamis' clinic. "People keep saying someone has to do something about this," said Washington University law professor Rebecca Dresser, who helped develop the ASRM guidelines. "It has to be resolved."
The embryos are created by fertilizing an egg with sperm in a laboratory and letting the fertilized egg grow for two days to about eight cells before being frozen and stored. When a woman wants to try to get pregnant, up to four embryos are thawed and inserted in her uterus.
Destroying embryos leaves some doctors, ethicists and patients aghast.
"It takes a long time to get the process of having a frozen embryo, shots and treatments," says fertility patient Elisa Brancati. "It just doesn't come easy, so I would think that they woul want to get them as soon as possible."
"Thawing them out and discarding them as if they were nothing more than excess lab material is morally troubling," said John Grabowski, a theologian at Catholic University in Washington.
Fink says that's why the institute is giving patients the choice.
"We don't want somebody to come back to us in six months and say, 'But I wanted those embryos because they are irreplaceable,'" she says.
Patient privacy raises yet another concern. "The patients may not have wished other people to be aware of those embryos," said Melvin Polkow, who heads the bioethics committee at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J.
The choices may be more theoretical than real. Other clinics are unlikely to take unclaimed embryos. In many cases, some date back to the 1980s and are so old that fertility experts say they have no chance of surviving inside a womb.
Though other doctors might hesitate, Dr. Jaroslav Marik of Los Angeles once accepted stored embryos from another retiring doctor. "There's always a liability issue if the freezing doesn't come out well," he said. "It's an unfortunate consequence of the sue-happy population."
The clinic will wait until the end of July to actually thaw any unclaimed or unwanted embryos.