Handling surplus embryos in fertility clinics
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:
|Single, fertile, heterosexual women who do not have a male partner.
Advantages to the woman (and her partner, if any) compared to regular
|She experiences the joys of pregnancy. They have the opportunity to
bond with the embryo and fetus before it is born.|
|The procedure can be much quicker than an adoption. With the
scarcity of eligible children, adoption might
take many years to arrange.|
|The 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.|
|Many 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
|The 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.|
|She 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.|
|Depending upon the clinic's regulations, she may have some choice in selecting suitable donors.
|Embryo 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|
|The resultant child is genetically unrelated to the woman or the
|She experiences the discomfort of pregnancy, pain of childbirth, and
economic dislocation of having a baby.|
|In the U.S., her health insurance may not pay for all of the costs
|She cannot choose the child's gender.|
|Since 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.|
|There may be serious disappointment if the implantation fails
to produce a viable embryo.|
||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.|
|The embryos most likely to produce a successful pregnancy have
implanted in the donor woman's uterus. The ones left over for use by
others may be of lesser
|Frozen 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."
|At 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.
Fertility Plus lists clinics and organizations which provide, promote,
or facilitate embryo adoption. 7
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.
|One reason is that "the couple may be reluctant to undergo a
rigorous and costly group of screening procedures." 11
|Another is that they might simply feel uncomfortable about another son
or daughter of theirs being born.|
|"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:
|An article in Dignity magazine refers to "Many" adoptions having
been made. 1|
|Another report states that "embryo adoptions are rare."
|Judging 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.|
|In 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:|
|Aggressive publicity by many Fundamentalist
and other Evangelical religious organizations -- primarily Focus on the Family.
|Federal government funding of over $1
million to Snowflakes alone.|
|Embryo adoptions are obviously unable to
make a dent in the quickly growing number of surplus embryos.|
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Linda Bevington, "A creative option, embryo adoption,"
Dignity, 1999-Fall. Online at:
- Susan Lewis Cooper and Ellen Sarasohn Glazer, "Choosing Embryo
Adoption," Perspectives Press, at:
- Arthur Caplan, "The problem with 'embryo adoption.' Why is the
government giving money to 'Snowflakes'?" MSNBC, 2003-JUN-24, at:
- Snowflakes frequently asked questions," at:
- "Funding Available For 'Embryo Adoption' Public Awareness
Campaigns," American Society of Reproductive Medicine, ASRM
Bulletin, Vol. 4, #32, 2002-JUL-28. Online at:
- Federal Register, Vol. 67, #143, 2002-JUL-25.
- "Donor Sperm, Donor Egg, Surrogacy, & Embryo Adoption Resources,"
Fertility Plus, at:
- Jeffrey P. Kahn, "'Adoption ' of frozen embryos a loaded term,"
CNN.com, 2002-SEP-17, at:
- Andis Robeznieks, "Researchers ponder best use of 400,000 stored embryos"
American Medical News, 2003-JUN-16, at:
[Paid access required]
- 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:
- David Sable, "Embryo Freezing: How, Why, and What Next?," at:
- Tracy Doerr, "Embryo Adoption," at:
- "Frozen embrhos: The adoption solution," Focus on the Family,
http://www.family.org/. You need software to
read these files. It can be obtained free from:
- A search of the Focus on the Family website (http://www.family.org)
for "embryo adoption" returned 11 hits.
Copyright © 2002 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-SEP-25
Latest update: 2012-OCT-27
Author: B.A. Robinson