Catholic Church opposes plans to discard unclaimed embryos

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2003, 12:00am

The Catholic Church and pro-life groups yesterday condemned possible moves by a public hospital to dispose of unclaimed human embryos as tantamount to taking a life.

The Church also said that Catholic doctors who participated in the process, involving embryos held in frozen storage for more than 10 years, would be committing an 'immoral' act.

Their comments came after the University of Hong Kong put out an appeal last Wednesday for the parents of 31 unclaimed human embryos to come forward. The embryos belong to nine couples who were trying to have children under an in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) programme.

Since the adoption of a new Code of Practice on Reproductive Technology and Embryo Research, unveiled last December, the university must decide the fate of stored embryos after 10 years if they are not claimed by their parents. However, the parents of the 31 embryos cannot be located despite repeated efforts.

The clinic can discard the embryos or give them to a designated recipient - but only under special circumstances.

William Yeung Shu-biu, associate professor at the university's department of obstetrics and gynaecology, said that a freezing service was necessary in an IVF programme so that spare embryos could be kept for future use if earlier implants were unsuccessful. For every cycle of implantation, three spare embryos are kept.

A statement from Queen Mary Hospital, the teaching hospital of the University of Hong Kong, said: '[Our] Assisted Reproduction Unit is making every possible effort to contact the couples who used the service during the specific period of time, in order to discuss with them the proper and decent management of the embryos.'

Diocesan chancellor Father Lawrence Lee Len said the Catholic Church opposed IVF programmes because they did not represent 'an expression of love between husband and wife'.

'Now we are already facing the subsequent action where the starting point is already unacceptable - what you do with [unwanted] frozen embryos,' he said.

The Catholic Church holds that life begins at the moment of conception, Father Lee said, adding: 'So an embryo is a life, there is no doubt about that. If you dispose of them it is immoral, it is like killing a human being.'

Giving them away 'under special circumstances' - as specified as an alternative to disposal under the reproductive science code - could be 'a lesser evil', he said, but it is also immoral because the embryos are being used 'like an ordinary object' instead of a living being.

'You do not treat life that way. You give due respect to human dignity,' he said.

Father Lee said no Catholic doctor who was true to his faith would assist in the IVF procedure or in disposing embryos. 'It is immoral,' he said.

A core member of the Hong Kong Pro-Life League, Raymundo Arcilla, said: 'Embryos are human beings and disposing of an embryo is killing somebody.'

He said the IVF technique promoted a culture that 'those who are weak are disposable'.

'Somehow some embryos will be aborted or disposed of. It is like if you are elderly or handicapped or weak, it will be all right if you are killed. We have been opposing the IVF technique for so long. The bottom line is that someone is getting killed [in the process],' he said.

Graphic: EMBR10GET