Embryo Disposition and the New Death Scene

Main Article Content

David Ellison
Isabel Karpin


In the IVF clinic - a place designed principally for the production and implantation of embryos - scientists and IVF recipients are faced with decisions regarding the disposition of frozen embryos. At this time there are hundred of thousands of cryopreserved embryos awaiting such determinations. They may be thawed for transfer to the woman herself, they may be donated for research or for use by other infertile couples, they may remain in frozen storage, or they may variously be discarded by being allowed to 'succumb', or 'perish'. Where the choice is discard, some IVF clients have chosen to formalise the process through ceremony. A new language is emerging in response to the desires of the would-be-parents who might wish to characterise the discard experience as a ‘good death’. This article examines the procedure known as  ‘compassionate transfer’ where the embryo to be discarded is placed in the woman’s vagina where it is clear that it will not develop further. An alternate method has the embryo transferred in the usual manner but without the benefit of fertility-enhancing hormones at a point in the cycle unreceptive to implantation. The embryo destined for disposal is thus removed from the realm of technological possibility and ‘returned’ to the female body for a homely death.

While debates continue about whether or not embryos constitute life, new practices are developing in response to the emotional experience of embryo discard. We argue that compassionate transfer is a death scene taking shape. In this article, we take the measure of this new death scene’s fabrication, and consider the form, significance, and legal complexity of its ceremonies.

Article Details

The Death Scene (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biographies

David Ellison, Griffith University

David Ellison is a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at Griffith University. He is currently working on a cultural history of Victorian domestic discomfort.

Isabel Karpin, University of Technology, Sydney

 Isabel Karpin is a professor of Law at the University of Technology, Sydney. She researches in Health Law, Feminist Legal Theory, and Law and Culture. She is involved in major research projects in reproductive technology, disability and emergent genetic technologies