As President Bush vetoed another stem cell bill that would loosen restrictions on federal funding, more than half of infertility patients are saying that they would donate their unused embryos to be used in stem cell research, according to a study that will be published Thursday.
In a survey of more than a thousand patients who have created and frozen embryos as part of fertility treatment, 60 percent said they would likely donate unused embryos for stem cell research, according to a study led by researchers at Duke University Medical Center and Johns Hopkins University.
"I think this particularly interesting because the infertility patients are invested in many ways in these embryos," Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, an OB-GYN and bioethicist at Duke and the lead investigator of the study, told ABC News. "Even in that setting, infertility patients find giving the embryos for research to be the preferred option."
Furthermore, in light of the findings, Lyerly believes that the study reveals an increase in the number of embryos and thus embryonic stem cell lines previously believed to be available for research.
"Our findings increase by a factor of 10 the number of embryos that might be available for stem cell research if restrictions were loosened," she said. "That would be 100 fold increase in the stem cell lines that are currently available for federal funding."
In real numbers, that translates to about 100,000 embryos available for research if restrictions were loosened. Earlier research has suggested that the number would only be 11,000.
Questionnaires were sent to 2,210 patients at nine infertility centers across the country, asking them about their intentions for the frozen embryos they currently had stored.
Of the respondents, 49 percent said they were likely to donate some or all of their excess embryos to research in general. The number increased to 60 percent when the questions were about stem cell research. In contrast, only 22 percent of the respondents were in favor of donating their embryos to other couples.
"One might think that [the couples] want the embryos to turn into children. ... The conventional debates presume that if you respect embryos … then that's what you want to become of them and yet these patients were seemingly reluctant to donate to another couple," Lyerly said. "They much prefer research or destruction."
Lyerly said she conducted the research for two reasons: to increase the quality of care for infertility patients and to hear the voices of those affected by the debate over using embryonic stem cells.
"Despite vigorous debate about stem cell research the dominant voices have been of lawmakers," she said. "As is often the case the perspective of women and men who face these very personal decisions about reproduction have not been well- represented."
"I think right now there is a very strong case for loosening federal restrictions. Our findings strengthen the case for that both in the finding that [couples] are invested in embryos and in the fact that there would be many more embryos," she continued.
"I hope lawmakers will pay attention to these findings which underscore the importance of the availability of research as an option for embryo disposition both for the well-being of fertility patients and the science of human health."