This article is a response to McLeod and Baylis (2007) who speculate on the dangers of requesting fresh ‘spare’ embryos from IVF patients for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, particularly when those embryos are good enough to be transferred back to the woman. They argue that these embryos should be frozen instead. We explore what is meant by ‘spare’ embryos. We then provide empirical evidence, from a study of embryo donation and of embryo donors' views, to substantiate some of their speculations about the problems associated with requesting fresh embryos. However, we also question whether such problems are resolved by embryo freezing, since further empirical evidence suggests that this raises other social and ethical problems for patients. There is little evidence that the request for embryos for research, in itself, causes patients distress. We suggest, however, that no requests for fresh embryos should be made in the first cycle of IVF treatment. Deferring the request to a later cycle ensures that potential donors are better informed (by experience and reflection) about the possible destinations of their embryos and about the definition of ‘spare embryos’. Both this article, and that by McLeod and Baylis, emphasize the need to consider the views and experiences of embryo donors when evaluating the ethics of embryo donation for hESC research.