Health & Science
Frozen Embryo Donation and Adoption: A New Trend?
For many couples, being unable to conceive naturally is a heartbreaking piece of news. Many turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF), which is successful about 30 percent of the time. However, when in vitro is successful, most couples have frozen embryos leftover and are asked what they would like to do with them. The majority of clinics offer four options: embryos can be donated to scientific stem cell research; they can be kept on ice for a several hundred dollar yearly fee; they can be destroyed by the clinic; or they can be donated to other families who struggle with infertility. This last option is called embryo adoption, or “snowflake” adoption. Embryo adoption is a largely unknown practice that has been gaining both notoriety and applause for its ability to help more couples go through the process of pregnancy and birth, giving them children who are not genetically related to their birth parents. Read on to learn about the background of frozen embryo adoption, the regulations on it, and what to expect moving forward.
What is frozen embryo adoption?
The process that leads to frozen embryo adoption usually begins with in vitro fertilization. It is often a practice for the doctor to harvest as many eggs as possible from the woman, thereby creating the maximum amount of fertilized eggs. A few of these embryos are implanted in the woman’s uterus, and the rest are frozen for later use. “Later use” refers to another round of IVF, either because the first round failed or because the couple wanted to expand their family some more. So what happens when a couple decides that their family is big enough? This is where embryo donation–and then adoption–sometimes comes into play.
The embryo donation and adoption process is pretty straight-forward–a couple who decides they want to donate their extra embryos after in vitro fertilization does so, and a couple (or a single woman, although some embryo adoption agencies only allow married couples to adopt frozen embryos) who wants to adopt embryos has them implanted into the woman’s uterus. Hopefully, the implantation takes. Then, a baby is born that is genetically the child of the donor couple.
What is responsible for the rise in frozen embryo adoptions?
The internet is rife with stories of couples who have struggled with infertility. It is a hardship that creates internet bonds between blogging wives and mothers, and fathers and husbands. Infertility is a deeply personal struggle, yet many people find that sharing that struggle online gains them the understanding that they can’t find in their offline life. In many stories of frozen embryo adoptions, this is how it starts. Maybe IFV was unsuccessful. Maybe the couple in question didn’t have the money for IFV at all. Maybe there is a woman who never found that perfect partner in life, and wanted to have a baby anyway. The reasons vary, but a fair number of the stories have similar beginnings–someone who is interested in an alternate path to having children sees an online posting, and then the embryo adoption process begins. A well-publicized example of this is the case of Glenda Lyons, Susan Lindeman, and Dana MacMillan, who all found each other on infertility message boards and are all raising children who are genetically Lyonses, although each family lives in a different part of the country. Their very unique story was documented in a 2009 article in Good Housekeeping.
There are of course many other ways for this process to occur as well. There are private companies that match donors with potential adoptive parents, such as BlessedWithinFertility. That process works much like a dating matchmaker, where the private company works as a consultant to arrange the perfect match between embryo donors and recipients. Clinics that offer embryo adoption have also been on the rise, building off of the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, which began in 1997. The Department of Health and Human Services also has a grant program to provide funding for clinics that offer embryo adoption as one of their services, and is working to increase public awareness.
It’s important to note that adoptive parents do not need to suffer from fertility issues in order to adopt frozen embryos–that is just the most common reason for deciding to pursue this particular route toward conceiving a child. There are very few guidelines surrounding embryo adoption in the United States, which means that the laws very from state to state. In most cases, anyone can adopt frozen embryos as long as they agree to the terms of the donor. In cases of private adoptions, the donors often set guidelines themselves for what they are looking for in adoptive parents; in the case of the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, a written application and a home visit are necessary before applicants are paired with donors.
Who can donate a frozen embryo?
The market for frozen embryo donation is almost exclusively made up of couples who have successfully conceived through IFV and have embryos left over, and most embryo adoption websites appear to use rhetoric that is only addressed to couples. This makes the decision to donate remaining embryos an immensely personal decision that presumably many couples agonize over. The donation of embryos helps other couples realize their dream of going through pregnancy and childbirth. However, many couples struggle with the realization that there will be more of their biological children out there in the world whom they may never meet. Because of this emotional and personal factor in the embryo adoption process, many couples opt to choose their own embryo recipients, thereby alleviating some of their fears.
While most embryo adoption agencies target couples who have extra embryos left over, there is also the chance that a single woman successfully underwent IVF with a sperm donor and later will want to donate her frozen embryos as well. Since, in most cases of sperm donation, the sperm donor consents to giving up all parental rights, the woman would have the right to decide on her own what to do with the leftover embryos.
Frozen embryo donation is not the same thing as egg donation. Embryos are already fertilized eggs that have been frozen after the fertilization has been successful; egg donation is only the first part of that process, where eggs are harvested but have not yet been fertilized. While women are often actively recruited to donate eggs and are compensated generously for the time and effort, embryo donors are not compensated for their donation and do have other options for what to do with their leftover embryos.
Why is the frozen embryo adoption process controversial?
There are several reasons why embryo adoption is controversial in the United States, and they range from legal to religious in nature. One big reason is that there are no nationwide laws governing embryo adoption, which leaves the decision to each individual state. So far, ten states have enacted laws having to do with embryo adoption. For example, in Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Oklahoma, embryo donors have to give up all of their parental rights; in nine states, including Florida, Ohio, and Oklahoma, all decisions must be made in writing. As the topic gains more attention, more states will likely follow suit and regulate the process.
A second controversy falls in the camp of the ethical–if a donor couple decides to do a closed donation (meaning they would give up all right to contact with the recipient and the child), how would the families keep track of each other, and should they? These are just a couple of the reasons why this new process for helping families struggling with infertility is making some people (and lawmakers) scratch their heads in thoughtful silence. Would a federal law help regulate this extremely personal decision? Maybe, but a question asked by many others is whether the government should get involved in this process at all, since it is something that is based on a donor couple’s personal decision.
Are there any controversial supporters?
Many supporters of embryo adoption are devout Christians who oppose abortions. Much of this is based on their interpretation of what frozen embryos are. This makes the option of destroying frozen embryos akin to abortion in the minds of some outspoken supporters of embryo adoption, even if that is not scientifically accurate.
Are there people who oppose frozen embryo adoption?
Yes, there are people who don’t believe embryo adoption is a good idea, but many only balk at the rhetoric used.
To quote Dr. Owen Davis, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM):
You are putting [couples] through a procedure more akin to adopting an actual live child who has attained personhood, and this is really not the same.
In an article by Aljazeera, the ASRM’s ethics committee was quoted saying that the term “adoption” was “deceptive because it reinforces a conceptualization of the embryo as a fully entitled legal being.”
In other words, many who are pushing back against embryo adoptions are doing so because they don’t believe the terms being used to describe the procedure are accurate.
The growing public knowledge of the process of frozen embryo donation and adoption is bringing the procedure into the forefront of public opinion like it has never been before. Since it is still a relatively new procedure–not quite two decades old–there is still much room for growth when it comes to legislation surrounding embryo adoptions. Currently, there is no national standard, and some people find the procedure to be controversial. It is likely that this process will continue as it becomes more common and more laws are added to the books regarding embryo donation and adoption.