Microscope on donated embryo kinship

Embryo donation and receipt in Australia can be a confusing issue for families because of a lack of clarity about whether or not embryos constitute kinship.

Psychology researchers at Flinders University have identified four key areas where confusion may exist surrounding embryo donation:

  • Whether embryos are understood to be merely cells or as potential children
  • building relationships between “siblings” in families
  • using an agreed, shared language when discussing inter-family relationships
  • extended family members having difficulty understanding the concept of embryo donation.

To explore these issues, the researchers drew on a diverse sample of people from varying embryo donor and recipient roles, including people considering embryo donation, those who have already donated embryos, those who have embryos in storage, or those who donate eggs from which embryos may later be formed.

The findings, in the paper “Embryo donation and receipt in Australia: views on the meanings of embryos and kinship relations,” by Dr Clare Bartholomaeus and Associate Professor Damien Riggs, have been published by New Genetics and Society (Taylor & Francis Online – doi.org/10.1080/14636778.2018.1530100).

Associate Professor Riggs says that having such diverse participants is a strength of the study, as it shows that relatively similar views about the meaning of embryos and views on relationships between donors and recipients were evident.

Regarding the understandings of embryos, participants had varied views of embryos which may be viewed as being on a continuum from cells to children, rather than these categories being distinct.

The ways in which people understand embryos has clear implications for decision making around embryos in storage.

Those who viewed embryos as cells that have the “potential” to give someone a “chance” to have a child were more likely to be open to embryo donation.

However, those who viewed embryos as children had two distinct views: either that embryos need to be born, even into another family, or that embryos should not be donated as they were children of the people who had created them.

Extended family can be involved in discussions about fertility and birth choices.

Associate Professor Riggs also noted that some participants’ understandings of embryos changed over time, particularly among participants with embryos in storage, whose view changed through the IVF process and as they became parents.

He believes that proactive conversations about the meanings of embryos may help refine decisions about remaining embryos, and he supports a need for counseling of people with additional embryos, beyond existing sources of education and information.

There are currently no mandatory requirements for the content of counselling, meaning that people’s different views of embryos may not be covered.

The study also found that some participants clearly viewed embryo donation as a type of “extended family” that served to establish kinship connections between the donor and recipient families.

Some study participants sought out donors/recipients directly, and were more likely to be in direct contact with each other, including before the donation took place.

Other participants did not view embryo donation as automatically translating to a kinship relationship, or a relationship at all.

While people may seek donors/recipients outside of clinics by choice or because their clinic does not undertake embryo donation, the lack of laws and policies in Australia relating to counselling and arrangements between donors/recipients potentially places people at risk of unpredicted outcomes.

Finally, the study found that donors and recipients may hold differing views to those of their extended family members.

This may become an issue if extended family members seek a relationship with children conceived via embryo donation, or if extended family members strongly discourage people from donating embryos.

With such diversity of views, and often strong opposing opinions, the researchers suggest the need for services to offer support and counselling to all family members – including extended family – to  encourage cohesive support for decisions made that those with embryos in storage and those who received donated embryos.

“The study highlights the need for a more holistic and comprehensive approach to supporting those who seek to engage in embryo donation in Australia,” says Associate Professor Riggs.

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College of Education, Psychology and Social Work