Press Release 02/2016

German Ethics Council recommends legal regulation of the donation and adoption of surplus embryos

In its opinion published today, the German Ethics Council presents recommendations regarding the legal regulation of embryo donation, embryo adoption and assumption of parental responsibility.

Since at least 2013, the transfer of so-called surplus embryos for the carrying to full term and the permanent assumption of parental responsibility by a third party is being practiced in Germany. Tied to this are fundamental questions about children’s opportunities in life and for development; of parental responsibility; and of familial relationships. The German Ethics Council holds it to be ethically imperative that the frameworks for embryo donation/embryo adoption be specified legally.

Reproduction, understood as procreation and nurture of children, is a high-ranking individual and social good. Against this background, reproductive freedom possesses a high ethical significance. It is, however, delimited by the associated relationship of responsibility between partners, and between parents and child. Parental responsibility begins before the child is conceived.

An embryo donation/embryo adoption can be associated with diverse conflicts: for instance, through the multiplication of parental roles; through varying ideas about how the child should grow up; or through the right of the child to knowledge about its parentage, which can be of great significance for the child’s identity development.

The child's welfare is the essential, normative criterion for the arrangement of the embryo donation/embryo adoption. Against this background, the German Ethics Council recommends:

The relinquishment and assumption of parental rights and duties should both be regulated in a legally clear manner and in a durable way. If both donating parents agree to relinquish an embryo for transfer to another woman so that the recipient couple can assume the parental responsibility permanently, then the donating couple should conversely also no longer have any parental rights and duties once an embryo has been transferred. Accordingly, legal parenthood should be transferred to the recipient couple at the point in time of the embryo transfer.

Only surplus embryos should be eligible for donation, i.e., those embryos that ultimately can no longer be used for the reproductive treatment of the couple, for which they were created.

In view of the special challenges for all involved, information and counseling should cover medical, legal and psychosocial aspects of embryo donation and embryo adoption both for the donor and for the intended or recipient parents. In doing so, the right of the child to knowledge of its parentage should be respected.

A central institution should be entrusted with carrying out and documenting the matching of donor and intended parents according to identified criteria. The criteria should be oriented towards the welfare of the child. The institution should also document the number of relinquished embryos, the number of embryo transfers and of transferred embryos, as well as the number of pregnancies and births.

The right of the child to knowledge of its parentage should be ensured. To this end, the German Ethics Council suggests the establishment of a central clearing house at which anyone over the age of 16 has the right to obtain information regarding whether and what sources of evidence are available about his or her genetic origin.

The donation of embryos can offer at least some surplus embryos the opportunity to live; simultaneously, it can offer those persons who cannot or do not want to beget their own children the chance to fulfil the desire to have children. The higher one sets the moral status of the embryo in vitro, the more important it is to avoid the generation of surplus embryos. At the same time, there are good reasons not to refuse an available life perspective to the surplus embryos that have nevertheless been generated in the framework of reproductive medicine.

The Ethics Council recommends in this context to clarify legally the interpretation of the so-called rule of three in the Embryo Protection Act, which is significant for the practice of reproductive medicine and the generation of surplus embryos. 14 members of the German Ethics Council recommend a clarification in the sense of a strict interpretation, 12 members in the sense of an expanded interpretation.

The complete text of the opinion in German can be found here. An English version will be available in due course.