Thousands of babies are born from IVF embryos each year. But what happens to the leftover embryos that are never used? (Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)
A “pretty final” infertility diagnosis in 2007 didn’t stop New York residents Ben and Stephanie Hawkins from wanting children.
“I don’t think anyone expects [an infertility diagnosis] to happen to them,” says Stephanie, now 35. “But we are Christians and believe in taking things to God through prayer. We got the diagnosis, we prayed on it, and said, ‘What’s the next step?’”
In their hearts, they knew they were meant to be parents, but they never felt like traditional adoption was right for them. But when Stephanie’s co-worker, and then her gynecologist, mentioned Nightlight Christian Adoptions’ Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, the couple realized this “was the specific kind of adoption that we felt like we could do.”
Kelli and Dan Gassman of Salem, Ore., found themselves in a similar situation.
“Dan and I met when we were 41 and 42,” Kelli tells Yahoo Health. (Kelli is now 48, and Dan is 49.) “We were a little bit older and knew if we could have children, we would like to have them.” Six months after the couple married, they started trying to conceive. After a year of trying unsuccessfully, they consulted a fertility specialist. Six months of testing revealed that Kelli’s eggs were no longer viable.
“With each test that came back, we got a little more sad,” says Kelli.
Just like the Hawkins family, the Gassmans felt that traditional adoption was not the right option for them. So they were immediately intrigued when their family doctor mentioned embryo adoption. They began researching it, and “within a couple of hours, we knew this was exactly what we wanted to do,” says Kelli.
The Hawkinses and the Gassmans are part of a small, but growing, number of families turning to embryo adoption programs — either to find a home for embryos created during their own IVF cycles or to “adopt” other couple’s unused embryos to build families of their own. Since Nightlight established the Snowflakes program in 1997, 1,000 families have placed their unused embryos up for “adoption,” resulting in 424 babies’ being born.
According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, more than 63,000 babies were born in 2013 from IVF cycles. And as more cycles are completed each year in the U.S., there are an increasing number of embryos left unused.
During IVF, eggs are retrieved from a woman and then mixed with sperm (and sometimes injected with a single sperm in a process called intracytoplasmic sperm injection, or ICSI). The fertilized egg, or embryo, is then transferred to the woman’s uterus, where it may implant, resulting in a pregnancy. It is an expensive — not to mention physically and emotionally arduous — process, so all-consuming that many couples don’t consider the possibility of remaining embryos when they begin it.
“At the time, we were at that desperate place: We just want a child. We just want a child. We just want a child,” shares Becky Henderson, 41, of Tonawanda, N.Y. Becky and her husband, Chris, had tried to conceive for 14 years before beginning IVF. So the couple’s only goal in their first IVF cycle was to “have enough embryos for a next cycle” if the first cycle didn’t work out.
Becky ended up having 19 eggs retrieved: Of those, 13 were successfully fertilized and became embryos. Becky and Chris decided to transfer two of those embryos during their first cycle — and they both took. “So we had a very beautiful set of twins — twin girls,” Becky says. They were born in 2011.
The Henderson family: Chris and Becky with their twin daughters. (Photo courtesy of the Henderson family)
A year and a half later, the Hendersons’ reproductive endocrinologist asked the couple what they wanted to do with the remaining 11 embryos.
Becky’s pregnancy with the twins was difficult and complicated. “My husband and I both said that’s not the right thing for us — we can’t do this again,” she says. So while they weren’t sure what to do with the remaining embryos, they knew that they wouldn’t be using any.
The Hendersons’ infertility clinic ran an embryo-donation program. But the clinic’s program was an anonymous one: The Hendersons would never find out if their embryos were used to successfully create a pregnancy. They were told that their other options were to donate the embryos for scientific research or to “let them go,” as Becky put it.
“None of those options worked for us,” Becky explains. Then they discovered Nightlight Christian Adoptions, and “we knew this was it,” Becky says. “We said to ourselves, ‘OK, this will work.’”
The term “embryo adoption” is a controversial one. Implicit in its usage is the belief that embryos are children in need of adoptive homes, versus genetic material like sperm or eggs that can be donated.
Nightlight makes a point to use adoption in its Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program. “We believe that the hoped-for end result of an embryo donation is the birth of a human child — a child who is not genetically related to the parents giving birth to her or him,” explains Kimberly Tyson, marketing and program director for Nightlight and Snowflakes. “Adoption is the practice of placing children into homes with loving parents. The Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program helps families with remaining embryos have the opportunity to choose a family for their embryos. These embryos were created by the donor with the full intention of bringing them to life. Now the family they place them with will attempt to give them the life for which they were created.”
The Gassmans, who had a son, Trevor, and a daughter, Aubrey, by using the Hendersons’ remaining embryos, consider that their children were adopted. Trevor and Aubrey are the biological siblings of the Hendersons’ three children, and the Hendersons consider the Gassmans the adoptive parents of their embryos.
“Another Snowflakes mom we spoke to described it as adopting seeds. Baby seeds,” Kelli shares. “We’re telling Trevor and Aubrey, ‘We adopted you as baby seeds and planted you in Mommy.’”
“I think — and I know Chris and Becky [Henderson] are of the same mindset — we believe that these [embryos] are little lives,” Kelli says. “We gave them the chance to have a full life. We are pro-life and believe that life begins at conception. It’s a moral conviction.”
The Hawkinses have similar feelings. Ben and Stephanie “adopted” three embryos from Gina and Myles Yasuda, who live in Honolulu. One of these resulted in the birth of their daughter, Annika, who is now 6. Like the Gassman and Henderson families, the Yasudas chose Ben and Stephanie to be the “adoptive parents” of leftover embryos they had placed with Nightlight’s Snowflake program.
Gina Yasuda, now 46, had her tubes tied in 1994 during her first marriage. But after remarrying, she and her husband, Myles, decided to undergo the IVF process so they could have children together. After having two sons, Zackary and Bryce, they considered what to do with their remaining embryos — leading them to the Snowflakes program.
Zackary, 11, and Bryce Yasuda, 9. (Photo courtesy of the Yasuda family)
The decision to put up her remaining embryos for adoption “wasn’t easy,” Gina tells Yahoo Health. Ultimately, it was through daily prayer that she came to know it was the right choice for her and her family.
“Our embryo is now a beautiful, healthy 6-year-old girl who looks just like us but is loved and being raised by the mommy and daddy who [are] supposed to be raising her,” Gina says. “Everyone, we believe in our hearts, is where they’re supposed to be. We did what we believe was right in the eyes of God — and Ben and Steph are raising the daughter they were meant to raise. We have no regrets.”
Ben says that when he and his wife talk with Annika about where she comes from, they talk “about it as straight-up adoption.”
“We tell her she was so, so, so tiny. We tell her that a doctor put her in Mommy’s tummy, and we have talked to her about Mommy, and that they prayed and we prayed, and that she was meant to be here with our family,” he says. “We always frame it in the positive ways of what adoption can mean for a family and a child.”
For many in the infertility and reproductive-rights community, however, “adoption” — and its connotations — is an inaccurate, and even a potentially dangerous, term in regard to the use of donor embryos in IVF.
“We definitely use the term ‘embryo donation,’” Barbara Collura, president of Resolve: The National Infertility Association, tells Yahoo Health. “It’s not only deemed more accurate — the most accurate way of discussing this family-building option — but it’s very deliberate for Resolve to use that term. We never refer to it as embryo adoption.”
Their reasoning: Just like someone who donates eggs or sperm, a person “has created this, or has this, genetic material and wants to donate or give it to someone else,” she explains.
Meanwhile, the term “adoption” rose out of child welfare issues, Collura says. It’s “used to talk about the welfare of a living human being and about finding permanent homes for human beings who have already been born.” She notes that the term has a long history with U.S. policies governing public health and child welfare.
There have been “years and years of laws and regulations and safeguards in place for how kids and babies are adopted in the United States,” adds Collura, and this system is radically different from that involving embryos. The donation of an embryo from one family to another is legally considered to be a property transfer, and not an adoption.
For Collura, the use of the word adoptive holds significance not just in her professional life but in her personal life, too. “I am an adoptive parent,” she explains, and “I know what I went through with the adoption of my son. It is really, really important for us to not speak of an embryo as a person: A fertilized egg is not a person. It’s not really correct at all to equate the adoption model and lens to embryos.”
But all this isn’t to say that Collura and Resolve do not believe in embryo donation as a family-building option. “It’s one of the many, many options that people have — if they have looked at other options and for a variety of reasons those don’t work for their family,” Collura explains. “There might be financial or health considerations — a whole host of issues that can come up” that make it the best choice.
If anything, Collura says, the biggest issue with embryo donation in the U.S. is that “it’s probably not as well known” as traditional child adoption or other assisted reproductive technologies, like IVF.
Because there is no national clearing-house through which embryo donation is organized, it can seem difficult to evaluate the range of options available to potential donors and recipients. One big misconception is that Christian programs are the only option for donating or “adopting” embryos, Collura says. But “that is not the case. There are clinics that have nothing to do with agencies that tell people if embryos are available.”
In fact, most IVF clinics offer embryo-donation services, Collura says. But since these are services typically offered “in-house,” they are not necessarily publicly advertised or branded in the way that the more formal-seeming Christian adoption agency programs are.
The lack of formality and organization around embryo donation can, however, make things difficult for families navigating an already complicated process. “The big gap that exists is in matching people together without going through adoption agencies, which they certainly do not need to do,” Collura says.
Examining the use of the adoption and donation when referring to embryos brings to light a bigger issue: the current national dialogue surrounding personhood, Collura says.
Several states are in the process of attempting to pass laws regarding personhood, which would give fertilized eggs the same basic rights as a living human being. Proposed measures have been defeated or failed to gain the signatures needed to advance through the legislature in Mississippi, Florida, Nevada, California, Montana, Oregon, and Ohio. In Colorado, voters rejected personhood amendments three times (in 2008, 2010, and 2014).
To some, personhood legislation confirms the belief that human life begins at conception — a belief that Nightlight holds as an organization. “We believe in supporting the best interests of the child in all stages of biological development,” Tyson says. “Personhood amendments recognize that the genetic elements for human life are established at conception and that human life deserves respect in all stages of development.”
However, pro-choice advocates view personhood legislation in another way: as an attempt by politicians to interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions. Through it, abortion would be rendered illegal, and the destruction of embryos would be viewed as murder. It could also limit the number of a woman’s eggs that could be fertilized, which could hamper her chances of having one become successfully fertilized.
Resolve, which has been fighting personhood since 2008, notes in a policy statement on its website that personhood legislation would mean that anything that puts an embryo at risk could be considered a criminal violation. “If one or more microscopic embryos from an IVF cycle do not develop normally in the lab or fail to result in live births after transfer (all natural events), could the physician, lab, and/or patient be criminally liable?”
All of this is why Collura says she and Resolve make a point to use the word donation versus adoption with regard to embryos. “When we work at the legislative level, words and terms are incredibly important. For us, the use of the phrase ‘embryo adoption’ versus ‘embryo donation’ is very, very deliberate,” she says. “It’s our job to explain why we use that term, why we think it’s the best term, and why we think everyone should use it.”
Tyson, of Nightlight, however, says that if personhood amendments become law, the implications of the definition of personhood and its impact on the future of IVF and other reproductive technologies “would be determined by the courts.”
But for the families who have participated in programs such as Nightlight’s, legal ramifications and politics are hardly in the forefront of their minds. Rather, it’s all about family — and the many ways in which families are built and grown.
“We just consider them extended family,” says Becky Henderson of the Gassmans, the “adoptive parents” of her embryos. “We have been blessed to just extend our family. We consider them an extension of us, and they consider us the same. Our children know about their brother and sister, and [the Gassman children] know about their sisters.”
Becky explains that she considers her family just one of today’s “modern families.” “It’s like that wonderful show, Modern Family. We may not look like a traditional family, but it works, and it was the right thing for our family, and we were able to help another couple, who were able to give life to two of our embryos,” she says. “What a joy to give this couple the ability to have children. We know what the struggle is like. To experience the joy of having kids and, in addition to that, knowing that these two little lives wouldn’t be here if not for that choice … because we wouldn’t have been able to have them. Knowing that they have life because we were able to give them up is priceless.”