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Key Points:

Some embryos created in IVF treatment are trapped in limbo, as fertility clinics cannot trace the couples who produced them.

The clinics have had to store the embryos indefinitely after losing contact with the couples responsible for their future.

Clinicians are now wrestling with the ethical dilemma of what to do with them and have even considered seeking a legal judgment.

"At the moment it's a bit in limbo," said John Peek, group operations manager of the Fertility Associates clinics.

Dr Peek said a process was developed by all fertility clinics and a Government committee for discarding such embryos.

But no one had yet adopted the plan.

"I don't think any clinics have gone ahead with it. Ethically it might have passed the test but ultimately there's the concern there might be a couple who say, 'That's not what I wanted'."

The Catholic Church told the Herald it was an ethical dilemma, and it wanted these and all other "surplus" embryos to be allowed to die.

After IVF treatment, only half of couples have any embryos left that are suitable to store. When they do, on average they have three or four frozen. It costs couples about $180 a year to store a group of embryos at Fertility Associates.

Dr Peek said several thousand frozen embryos were stored.

He said clinics wrote each year to couples who had stored embryos to ask what they wanted done with them.

Options were to continue storage, to discard them or to donate them to another couple.

Some frozen embryos at Fertility Associates have been there since 1987, when the business began.

The group had lost touch with the couples responsible for a small number of stored embryos.

Dr Peek said seeking a High Court ruling was considered but rejected because of the cost and the likelihood that it would not resolve the matter.

The Herald revealed last week that top-level Government advisers had recommended the parents of surplus embryos left after in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment be permitted to donate them for research.

Former Health Minister David Cunliffe rejected this. His National successor, Tony Ryall, will consider the matter early next year.

IVF parents told the Government's Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology that they wanted to be able to donate spare embryos for health research.

Many other countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom, permit this.

But the Catholic Church - which opposes IVF - is also against research on spare embryos, because it considers human life starts when a sperm fertilises an egg.

The New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre says this implies that from this moment on, an embryo must be given the unconditional respect due to all humans.

Research destroyed the embryo, so it conflicted with that respect, and with the Catholic position.

Catholic Bioethics Centre spokesman John Kleinsman said the Vatican stated last week that reproductive technology, although usually used with good intentions, had created the "intolerable situation" of spare embryos.

"In the moral cul-de-sac in which we find ourselves - the untenable situation of having thousands of frozen embryos - the only way that we can uphold their dignity is to allow them to die," he said.

"To use human embryos for research is to reduce them to the status of commodities."

The problem:

When couples use in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) to have a baby, the process often creates leftover embryos.

Doctors store these embryos and regularly ask the couples if they want to keep or destroy them.

But the clinics have lost touch with some couples, usually because they changed address. Clinics now do not know what to do with the embryos.

The Catholic Church says they should be left to die, rather than used for research.