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."
Fertility clinics across the country, according to the most recent data available, held about 400,000 frozen embryos as of May 2003. Patients had reserved 88 percent of them for their own future use, and they had earmarked about 3 percent for medical research. Two percent -- or about 9,000 embryos -- were available for donation to other couples, according to Sean Tipton, director of public affairs at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which collected the data.
Nobody knows for sure how many embryos have actually been donated, or how many children have been born as a result, but the numbers appear to be relatively small, Tipton said.
"Most families that are at a fertility clinic are there because they want a genetically related child. If they are willing to forgo that genetic link, they adopt an existing child," he said.
Proponents of embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of the embryos but which many scientists think has enormous potential to develop ways to repair organs and fight disease, say there are so few adoptions that thousands of embryos will be discarded if they are not used for research. Even if such adoptions were to increase manyfold, "it will not solve the question of what happens to the leftover embryos," said Michael Manganiello, senior vice president of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in Washington.
To opponents of embryonic stem cell research, however, children such as Tanner Brinkman are proof that every embryo is a life worth protecting.
A bill passed by the House last week, now pending in the Senate, would allow taxpayer dollars to be used for research on embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics. To dramatize his opposition to the bill, which he has threatened to veto, Bush invited the Brinkmans and about 20 other families with children born from donated embryos to the White House last Tuesday.
When the Brinkmans ran into fertility problems, they first tried in vitro fertilization themselves, unsuccessfully. They also thought about a conventional adoption. But because they wanted to experience a pregnancy, Donielle Brinkman said, they turned to Nightlight Christian Adoptions of Fullerton, Calif., and its "Snowflakes" program, a name intended to emphasize that every embryo is unique.
More than half of U.S. fertility clinics allow clients to donate embryos to other couples anonymously. Nightlight, which has received more than $800,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to promote embryo adoptions, is one of only a few agencies that treat embryos exactly like infants.
For a fee ranging from $4,000 to $5,600, it arranges "open" adoptions in which the genetic and adoptive parents are matched according to detailed preferences and given an opportunity to get to know each other. Donielle Brinkman said that she did not want to make the genetic family's identity public, but that they have exchanged photographs, phone calls and information over the Internet.
Some Snowflakes donors are as concerned as the recipients about the fate of the embryos. Kathryn Goodrich, 47, of Webster, Minn., said she felt "blessed" when her leftover embryos were adopted by Janet Mason, 37, a family practice physician in Columbus, Ohio. "I needed to know that they were not going to science, they were not going to be destroyed and they were not going to a couple that might have a lifestyle that I would not choose for my own children," she said.
Lori Maze, director of the Snowflakes program, said that since it began in 1998 it has found embryo donors for 145 adoptive families, and that 59 of them have given birth to a total of 81 children. She estimated that about a third of the Snowflakes families are Catholics and that more than 90 percent are Christian.
Embryonic stem cell research has been a divisive religious issue since the late 1990s, when scientists first recognized the potential of stem cells to generate all kinds of tissues. Many mainline Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and other religious leaders have supported the research; most evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have opposed it.
But the debate over embryo adoptions is just beginning to take shape. "There are very few moral issues on which the Catholic Church has not yet taken a position. This is one," said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, chief spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.
One of the leading voices in the church in favor of embryo adoptions is the Rev. Thomas D. Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. "It's reaching out to another human being, albeit in an embryonic state, in the only way that that little being can be helped," he said.
But the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and is staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, argued that embryo adoptions would make Catholics complicit in test-tube fertilizations, which the church considers illicit. Moreover, he said, artificially implanting an embryo in a woman's womb is a "grave violation of the nature of marital sexuality."
When counseling Catholic couples on the issue, Pacholczyk said, he is careful to point out: "The Vatican could prove me wrong tomorrow. But I don't think the church will ever give them permission for this."