Fresh or frozen? Classifying 'spare' embryos for donation to human embryonic stem cell research.
Social science & medicine (1982) 2010 Dec; 71(12): 2204-11
United Kingdom (UK) funding to build human embryonic stem cell (hESC) derivation labs within assisted conception units (ACU) was intended to facilitate the 'In-vitro fertilisation (IVF)-stem cell interface', including the flow of fresh 'spare' embryos to stem cell labs. However, in the three sites reported on here, which received this funding, most of the embryos used for hESC research came from long term cryopreservation storage and/or outside clinics. In this paper we explore some of the clinical, technical, social and ethical factors that might help to explain this situation. We report from our qualitative study of the ethical frameworks for approaching women/couples for donation of embryos to stem cell research. Members of staff took part in 44 interviews and six ethics discussion groups held at our study sites between February 2008 and October 2009. We focus here on their articulations of social and ethical, as well as scientific, dimensions in the contingent classification of 'spare' embryos, entailing uncertainty, fluidity and naturalisation in classifying work. Social and ethical factors include acknowledging and responding to uncertainty in classifying embryos; retaining 'fluidity' in the grading system to give embryos 'every chance'; tensions between standardisation and variation in enacting a 'fair' grading system; enhancement of patient choice and control, and prevention of regret; and incorporation of patients' values in construction of ethically acceptable embryo 'spareness' ('frozen' embryos, and embryos determined through preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to be genetically 'affected'). We argue that the success of the 'built moral environment' of ACU with adjoining stem cell laboratories building projects intended to facilitate the 'IVF-stem cell interface' may depend not only on architecture, but also on the part such social and ethical factors play in configuration of embryos as particular kinds of moral work objects.
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