Making a decision about your frozen embryos

“If you are emotionally attached to an embryo, you may see it as a potential child, and that can affect a person on a very, very, deep psychological and emotional level,” says Jackie Stewart, Independent Fertility Counsellor at Bourn Hall, who provides implications counselling to help people make decisions. One of the difficult decisions is what to do with embryos frozen after IVF treatment.

Jackie says: “For some people it’s a real dilemma whether to return for treatment with their frozen embryos and how they will feel if they don’t use the embryos themselves. Sometimes this can be a matter of timing and talking to a counsellor can help you decide what is right for you.”

The fate of frozen embryos can be an uncomfortable subject to discuss. In this video Bourn Hall patient Natalie, who has recently made ‘one of the hardest decisions of her life’ talks to Jackie about some of the emotions that people experience.

In the blog below we explored some of these questions with Jackie about frozen embryo options.

Q. Do you need to make a decision about embryos frozen after IVF treatment if you want to keep the door open for future treatment?

Embryos can be kept in storage for ten years (this is due to be extended to 55 years from July 1, 2022). You can of course leave your embryos in storage, pay the annual fees, and keep the option of future treatment open for yourself. If you are feeling very unsure this may be the safest option to choose until you feel ready to re-visit this decision.

Q Many people find it very difficult to decide what to do about frozen embryos when they have finished their own treatment – why is this?

People cope in different ways, and even within couple there can be different views. One person may see an embryo as a bunch of cells; another will have attached an awful lot of emotion to that embryo and feel that it is a potential child. Depending on where you are in that spectrum there’s clearly going to be a disconnect, and then whose feelings are more important? People may try and avoid thinking about what to do, but it can filter out into other areas of your life, because you’ve not made a decision you have a constant dilemma around making that decision. So, I would advise anyone in that position to reach out and gain some support. A counsellor is not going to tell you what to do, but they are able to give you the information and allow you to explore that, and to listen helpfully.

Q Does having to stop treatment, rather than choosing to stop, make the decision harder?

There are many reasons why someone might take the decision not to have further treatment and if it is a couple, they might have different views. It could be that one person feels they are too old to continue, that life’s moved on or there could be financial implications, it is really important to ensure that you can provide for the family that you already have. It could be that somebody has medical risks if they go through treatment again. What’s right for somebody isn’t for somebody else. Exploring your own reasons and those of your partner is important if you are to both agree to the decision.

Q Why do you talk about infertility and secondary infertility as grief?

If a person has decided to stop or delay treatment, for whatever reason, and they originally planned to have a child or more than one child, then there can be a sense of loss for that dream. Not being able to fulfil a dream can give you a feeling of sadness that can be likened to a grieving process. There is a lot of benefit to mental wellbeing in recognising that this emotion is a type of grief, there is support that can be given to help a person with these feelings to move on with their life.

Q Can making the decision be a positive thing?

I think that the fear can paralyse a person and that grieving process can make people dread coming forward or talking about their feelings. The flipside of that is that if you can be brave enough to come forward and to look at your fears, to walk through the different options, and the implications of not coming back for treatment, then you can also look at the consequences. How would that enable your life? What would you be doing that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do? That can be uplifting and help you to see what is best for you. Options such as to donate to another couple or donate to research are positive decisions; they are not right for everyone but can help some to gain a feeling of purpose.

Jackie Stewart, independent counsellor at Bourn Hall
Jackie Stewart, independent counsellor at Bourn Hall
embryos frozen after IVF treatment
Natalie Silverman returned to Bourn Hall following successful treatment to discuss options for her frozen embryos

More information

There are a number of options you may want to consider if you have embryos frozen after IVF treatment, these are discussed in more detail in another blog post “Do you have frozen embryos in storage”. Implications counselling is available to help you to decide. There are four options to consider:

Continue with storage for the consented period and use the embryos for your own treatment when you feel ready
Donate to another patient and give the gift of parenthood to others
Donate to research to help improve fertility treatment
Consent to them being taken out of storage and allowed to perish naturally

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