More than three million human embryos have been created and destroyed by scientists in the UK the last 30 years, government figures have revealed.
The Department of Health has disclosed that between August 1991 and December 2019 a total of 3,106,319 embryos were artificially produced then discarded.
The majority are surplus to in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures to help infertile or sub-fertile couples, same-sex couples or individuals become parents but many others are used in destructive experiments and research.
An additional 2,056,449 embryos were transferred to the wombs of women hoping to become mothers.
But because just one in six embryos are implanted successfully and about three-fifth of IVF pregnancies subsequently end in miscarriages, only a small minority of those transferred to uteri result in live births.
The data reveals that over the last three decades just over seven per cent of transferred “test tube babies” have resulted in successful live births.
New data available for 2019 show that a total of 172,915 embryos were destroyed while 76,427 were transferred to uteri.
It means that human embryos created in laboratories are being discarded at the rate of about 14,400 a month.
Such practices became legal with the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990.
The figures were released by Lord Kamall, the Innovation Minister at the Department of Health, in response to a written question from Lord Alton of Liverpool.
Lord Alton, a crossbench peer and a Catholic, said they represented the complete loss of respect for early human life.
He said: “Imagine the indignation and outrage there would be if it was discovered that millions of animal embryos were being experimented on and destroyed in British laboratories.
“But, without a murmur of protest, or questioning dissent, we can routinely destroy more than three million human embryos.
“Even the Warnock Committee, which originally authorised embryo experimentation, said that the human embryo should be treated with respect.”
Lord Alton, pictured, added: “It is impossible to reconcile the word respect with the mass manufacture and mass destruction of the tiniest manifestations of our human species.”
Dr Neville Cobb, a biologist who has served at universities in Liverpool, Edinburgh and Belfast, said he doubted if it was in a woman’s best interests to be “hyper-stimulated to produce so many eggs to generate these embryos if only a sustained minority of them on average are intentionally used in her fertility treatment”.
“I am not for one moment suggesting that all embryos should necessarily be transferred in a given treatment cycle, due to the recognised risks of multiple pregnancy, but rather questioning why such an excess of embryos is consistently generated to begin with when no more than one out of three embryos are generally ever transferred to a womb.”
He continued: “The cumulative figures also show that this is a relatively recent trend, as the overall ratio for embryos transferred to embryos discarded since 1991 is around 2:3, or two out of five embryos transferred and three out of five discarded.
“This is seemingly both because more than one embryo was typically transferred to a woman’s womb per treatment cycle in the past – before introduction of the HFEA’s ‘One at a Time’ policy to reduce the risks of multiple pregnancy – and because natural cycles were the norm for pioneers of IVF before ovarian hyper-stimulation subsequently became common practice.”
The cost of a single cycle is usually more than £5,000, which is sometimes met by the NHS, though a number couples often spend five-figure sums in trying repeatedly for a child.
The HFEA has claimed, however, that IVF is becoming more effective.
The regulator revealed earlier this year that more than 1.3 million IVF cycles and more than 260,000 donor insemination cycles have been performed in the UK since 1991, resulting in the birth of 390,000 babies.
The number of IVF cycles has increased from 6,700 in 1991 to over 69,000 in 2019 and the live birth rate has also gone up from six per cent in the early 1990s to 25 per cent in 2019.
The risk of multiple births has meanwhile dropped from 28 per cent in the early 1990s to six per cent in 2019.
Julia Chain, chair of the HFEA, said: “The UK has remained at the forefront of research and innovation in fertility treatment to help people create families, and our data shows that through clinical advances and changes in technology over the last three decades this is now more possible than ever.
“We have seen many positive changes in the treatment of patients over this time with birth rates increasing, multiple birth rates falling and treatment becoming safer, so there’s much to celebrate about the sector and the progress that we’ve made together.
“We know that family structures are changing and continue to evolve, and the fertility sector is providing more options for people to create their families.”
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