Embryo Donation: The Little-Known Fertility Treatment

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Embryos being frozen for storage. Photo by Thinkstock

Families come together in all different ways — some through natural conception, others via adoption, still others though infertility options like IVF or gestational surrogacy. But one fertility option that’s gaining in popularity is still relatively unknown: embryo donation, which entered the spotlight this week thanks to a story published in People about a couple who chose this route. 

In embryo donation, a woman or couple who has frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization donates them to an infertile woman or couple. The embryo is then transferred into the woman’s uterus, and that woman carries the pregnancy.

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"Many couples who undergo IVF end up completing their families and have extra embryos that have been created," Dr. Eve Feinberg, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Fertility Centers of Illinois, tells Yahoo Parenting. “The options at that point are to discard the embryos, to donate them to medical research like stem-cell research, or donate them to an infertile couple. That last one is really uncommon, perhaps for obvious reasons. These are one couple’s biological children being raised by another family.”

In the People story, Liz Krainman, who received a donor embryo, and Libby Kranz, who donated her frozen embryos to Krainman after having four children of her own, opened up about their experiences.

"I can’t even begin to tell you how boggled my mind is. I can’t even wrap my head around it," Krainman said of her unconventional route to pregnancy. "Infertility and loss has produced some of the harshest pain I have ever known. And the saddest part to me is that there is a huge community of those who suffer in silence. I want others to not only know that they are not alone, but that there is another family-building option they may not be aware of."

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Feinberg, who has coordinated two successful embryo donations, says that, medically, the process is much like egg donation, but rather than choosing an egg and fertilizing it with a partner or other chosen male’s sperm, and having that transferred into the uterus, a would-be mother uses an embryo that has already been fertilized and frozen.

"The advantage of getting an embryo over an egg donation is largely cost," Feinberg says. “With an egg donor, you have to pay for the egg — the cost is about $30,000. But an embryo, because it is human material, you only pay the fees associated with a transfer, usually about $3,000, plus legal fees, which might be $1,500. It’s illegal to buy an embryo.” Feinberg says this is largely why embryo donation is gaining in popularity. "It’s been around a long time, but more and more clinics are offering it, and with the reduction in insurance coverage it’s a much less expensive way to have a baby."

But there are other reasons people choose this route, too. “I believe life begins at conception. Therefore, these embryos are life. They deserve an opportunity to grow and live and be loved just as any child deserves,” Krainman told People. “I wanted to offer love to a child who needed it.”

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Yahoo Parenting spoke with another mother who says she learned that embryo donation was an option after she went through infertility treatments and a failed egg donation. The woman, who lives in Wisconsin and prefers not to be named, was immediately intrigued. “When I was doing IVF, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if I had extra embryos. I didn’t think I’d want to donate them to science, and I didn’t think I’d want to discard them. So I figured I’d freeze them and deal with it on the other side,” says the 43-year-old, explaining that she already had a daughter and wanted to grow her family. “So to be on the flip side and have no embryos to use, let alone to freeze, and to know that someone else had been through this same struggle… I know I would have wanted a good family to place my embryos with, so I thought we could be that family for someone else.”

In this case, unlike Krainman’s, the donation was a closed one, so the donor and recipient have never met or been in contact, though medical history was shared between the two parties via lawyers.

Today, this woman and her husband have a healthy 11-week-old boy. “It’s so hard to comprehend. Sometimes I’m so wrapped up in the practical stuff—the dirty diapers and feeding and the fact that he doesn’t like his carseat — but then I remember that he was this incredible gift that was given to us,” she says. “’Thank you’ doesn’t even come in the ballpark of the gratitude I feel.”

When her son is older, this mom says she will be honest about how he came into their family. “This will be his story,” she says. “We want to honor the couple and let him know he was a gift, and that other people made a decision that helped his parents meet him and bring him into the world.”

Couples considering embryo donation — either on the recipient or donor side — can go through fertility clinics with embryo-donation programs, or look at sites like Snowflakes, a third-party embryo donation coordinator, or Miracles in Waiting, a match site for donating and receiving couples to connect. But, Feinberg says, couples should do their due diligence and make sure all proper testing has been done.

“You have to make sure the embryos were screened according to FDA guidelines,” she says. “There are strict criteria for egg donation, and because most embryos were not created with the intent of being donated, many are not properly screened.” The screenings, Feinberg notes, can be coordinated with a fertility specialist.

The most important thing about embryo donation is that it provides options, says the Wisconsin mom who received a donated embryo. “You can’t think your way through infertility, you have to feel your way through it. And everyone has to make decisions for themselves,” she says. “If you try to process it logically it’s so difficult — but there is no one way to have a baby.”

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