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Handling surplus embryos in fertility clinics

Embryo adoptions

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Embryo adoption (a.k.a. pre-birth adoption)

The term "adoption" has traditionally meant a legal process by which an individual or a couple becomes the parent of an existing newborn or child. Recently, its meaning has been extended to include an individual or a couple accepting embryo(s) for implantation in the woman's uterus with the hope of producing a newborn. This typically involves the use of a few surplus cryopreserved (frozen) embryos that were left over from previous in-vitro fertilization procedures on other couples.

This is a new solution for couples or individuals "who want to share a pregnancy experience and have neither eggs nor sperm to contribute to that process." Adopted embryos would most likely be implanted in:

bulletInfertile women.
bulletSingle, fertile, heterosexual women who do not have a male partner.
bulletLesbians.

Advantages to the woman (and her partner, if any) compared to regular adoption:

bulletShe experiences the joys of pregnancy. They have the opportunity to bond with the embryo and fetus before it is born.

bulletThe procedure can be much quicker than an adoption. With the scarcity of eligible children, adoption might take many years to arrange.

bulletThe mother-to-be has control over the pregnancy. Some children who are available for adoption have suffered from inadequate pre-natal medical attention, the use of street drugs by the mother, etc.

bulletMany believe that embryo adoption would literally save the life of one or more embryos. To strict pro-lifers, "surplus" frozen embryos are not simply human life; they are full "pre-born human beings." 1 To them, each embryo adoption would save the life of a human person.

bulletThe clinic may supply her with more medical, social and psychological data about the donors than she might be able to obtain from an adoption agency.

bulletShe may take greater comfort in knowing that the embryo was formed as a result of another loving couple's attempts to become pregnant. The conception of many adopted children are accidental and unintended, or may even have been the result of rape or incest.

bulletDepending upon the clinic's regulations, she may have some choice in selecting suitable donors. 2

bulletEmbryo adoption provides an opportunity for older women to become pregnant. "For women over 45, the chance of her embryo becoming a baby is almost zero. The inability to make embryos that become babies is why couples turn to donor eggs or donor sperm." 3

Disadvantages:

bulletThe resultant child is genetically unrelated to the woman or the couple.

bulletShe experiences the discomfort of pregnancy, pain of childbirth, and economic dislocation of having a baby.

bulletIn the U.S., her health insurance may not pay for all of the costs involved. 2

bulletShe cannot choose the child's gender.

bulletSince there is a low chance that a given embryo will produce a pregnancy, 4 more than one embryo may be implanted at a time. Thus, there is a significant chance that multiple births will result.

bulletThere may be serious disappointment if the implantation fails to produce a viable embryo.

bullet The field of embryo adoption is so new that, in most states, legislation has not caught up with it. Future problems may develop over the maternity and paternity of the child/children as legislation is passed.

bulletThe embryos most likely to produce a successful pregnancy have already been implanted in the donor woman's uterus. The ones left over for use by others may be of lesser quality.

bulletFrozen embryos degrade with time. "The chance they will grow to full term is about one in 10 for those frozen less than five years, and even less for those that have been frozen longer." 3

bulletAt about $10,000 per try, few couples are willing to use lower grade embryos obtainable through "embryo adoption."

In 2002, the U.S. federal Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Public Health and Science (OPHS) made $900,000 in funding available to agencies to develop public awareness campaigns on embryo adoption. 5,6

Fertility Plus lists clinics and organizations which provide, promote, or facilitate embryo adoption. 7

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Numbers of available embryos and embryo adoptions:

As of 2002-Fall, most experts estimate that there were over 110,000 frozen, stored surplus frozen human embryos currently stored in IVF clinics in the U.S. alone. One fertility specialist estimated in excess of 200,000. 8 Two other sources estimated 400,000. 9,3 In 2001-JUL, JoAnn L. Davidson, the program director for Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program estimated 188,000. 10 The number appears to be growing steadily.

Assuming that 200,000 embryos are in storage, about 100,000 would probably be still viable if they were thawed. If implanted in women, this would produce perhaps 33,000 newborns.

Not all embryos are available for adoption. The consent of both the woman and man who donated the genetic material is required. Many, probably almost all, donors refuse their permission.

bulletOne reason is that "the couple may be reluctant to undergo a rigorous and costly group of screening procedures." 11

bulletAnother is that they might simply feel uncomfortable about another son or daughter of theirs being born.

bullet"Many potential donors are uncomfortable with someone else raising their biological offspring." 12

There is no central registry that maintains records of all embryo adoptions. We have been unable to find a reliable estimate of the number of embryo adoptions:

bulletAn article in Dignity magazine refers to "Many" adoptions having been made. 1

bulletAnother report states that "embryo adoptions are rare." 12

bulletJudging by the number of Internet links, news items in conservative Christian publications, mention on both conservative Christian and secular radio & TV programs, congressional testimony, etc., the Snowflakes program run by Nightlight Christian Adoptions in California appears to be the main agency providing embryos for adoption. Their program started in 1997. They report that 18 children had been born into 13 families during the agency's first five years. That is about one baby every four months.

bulletIn the absence of accurate information, we would guess that the total rate of embryo adoptions in the U.S. is probably fewer than a dozen per year. This is in spite of:
bulletAggressive publicity by many Fundamentalist and other Evangelical religious organizations -- primarily Focus on the Family. 13,14

bulletFederal government funding of over $1 million to Snowflakes alone.

bulletEmbryo adoptions are obviously unable to make a dent in the quickly growing number of surplus embryos.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Linda Bevington, "A creative option, embryo adoption," Dignity, 1999-Fall. Online at: http://www.cbhd.org/
  2. Susan Lewis Cooper and Ellen Sarasohn Glazer, "Choosing Embryo Adoption," Perspectives Press, at: http://www.perspectivespress.com/
  3. Arthur Caplan, "The problem with 'embryo adoption.' Why is the government giving money to 'Snowflakes'?" MSNBC, 2003-JUN-24, at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/
  4. Snowflakes frequently asked questions," at: http://www.snowflakes.org
  5. "Funding Available For 'Embryo Adoption' Public Awareness Campaigns," American Society of Reproductive Medicine, ASRM Bulletin, Vol. 4, #32, 2002-JUL-28. Online at: http://www.asrm.org/
  6. Federal Register, Vol. 67, #143, 2002-JUL-25.
  7. "Donor Sperm, Donor Egg, Surrogacy, & Embryo Adoption Resources," Fertility Plus, at: http://www.fertilityplus.org/
  8. Jeffrey P. Kahn, "'Adoption ' of frozen embryos a loaded term," CNN.com, 2002-SEP-17, at: http://www.cnn.com/
  9. Andis Robeznieks, "Researchers ponder best use of 400,000 stored embryos" American Medical News, 2003-JUN-16, at: http://www.ama-assn.org/ [Paid access required]
  10. JoAnn L. Davidson, "Testimony of JoAnn L. Davidson, Given July 17, 2001 United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources Hearing on Embryonic Cell Research," at: http://www.stemcellresearch.org/
  11. David Sable, "Embryo Freezing: How, Why, and What Next?," at: http://www.americaninfertility.org/
  12. Tracy Doerr, "Embryo Adoption," at: http://preconception.com/
  13. "Frozen embrhos: The adoption solution," Focus on the Family, undated, at: http://www.family.org/. You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  14. A search of the Focus on the Family website (http://www.family.org) for "embryo adoption" returned 11 hits.

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Copyright © 2002 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-SEP-25
Latest update: 2012-OCT-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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