Catholics Split on Embryo Issue

President Bush greets Donielle Brinkman and son Tanner, who was adopted as an embryo, as Sharon Tesdall watches.
President Bush greets Donielle Brinkman and son Tanner, who was adopted as an embryo, as Sharon Tesdall watches. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

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By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Donielle Brinkman has never told her son, Tanner, any silly tales about being found on a doorstep or delivered by a stork. She decided he should know the truth: He arrived by mail, despite a Zip code error that nearly stranded him in a Phoenix warehouse.

Tanner celebrated his fourth birthday with a cake at the White House last week, and President Bush offered congratulations on national television. That is because Tanner is the product of what evangelical Christian groups call an "embryo adoption."

It is a birthright that places him, and at least 80 other children born in a similar manner, in the middle of the boisterous political battle over stem cell research and a sharpening theological debate, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church. Some Catholic theologians are encouraging married couples to adopt unwanted embryos from fertility clinics. Others vehemently oppose the idea, calling it a grave violation of the principle that procreation should occur naturally.

The Vatican has not yet taken a stand. But if Pope Benedict XVI rules against embryo adoption, as some doctrinal conservatives expect, it could create a fissure between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, who have enthusiastically promoted embryo adoption and enlisted the White House's support for it.

The story of Tanner Brinkman's life, as his mother tells it, began in 1997 when a married couple in the northwestern United States underwent in vitro fertilization to overcome fertility problems.

The husband's sperm was combined in a laboratory with a female donor's eggs to create embryos for implantation in the wife's womb. But, as often happens in these procedures, the couple ended up with more embryos than they needed for a successful pregnancy.

Three years later, a Christian adoption agency arranged for the couple to donate 11 frozen embryos to Brinkman, a stay-at-home mother, and her husband, Jim, a Web support analyst for Intel Corp. in Arizona.

As evangelical Christians, the Brinkmans, who are both 32, believe that life begins at conception and that each embryo is a person.

When the embryos were shipped by FedEx to their fertility clinic in Phoenix, Donielle Brinkman recalled, her "ultimate nightmare" occurred: The package went astray because of an erroneous Zip code. In a panic, she drove to a FedEx warehouse to retrieve it herself.

"I went to the counter, and I wasn't leaving until they gave me that tank," she said. "I said: 'You have my babies there. I need you to hand them over.' "

Fifteen minutes later, she walked out of the warehouse with a round, black cryogenic tank in her arms, strapped it with a seat belt in the front passenger seat of her car and kept her right hand on it all the way to her clinic.

Over the next three years, she insisted that her doctors transfer all of the embryos into her womb, two or three at a time. She had four transfers, and three miscarriages. Tanner was the only one who survived, but "we were committed to all 11 of those babies," she said. "We were going to see it through as long as it took."

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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