In-vitro fertilization (IVF), the process of conceiving a child by combining egg and sperm in a lab, has been in existence for several decades now and is an increasingly common method to which couples turn when they encounter fertility struggles. Often couples undergo a successful cycle or two of IVF, give birth to their desired number of children and finish building their families. Many of these couples end up creating more embryos than are needed or able to be used to build their families and at that point are faced with a dilemma: What do we do with our embryos that remain?
These couples have four options. They may choose to discard their embryos, donate them to embryonic stem cell research, continue to store them in cryopreservation or donate them to be used by others hoping to build families.
We at the NEDC exist to facilitate and advocate for the formation of families with these “unused” embryos. Life begins at conception, which means we see embryos as the tiniest of human lives, not just tissue. That is why we accept embryos remaining from IVF from all over the country free of charge to those who donate them. We then adopt the embryos out to couples who –in most cases- are experiencing the trial of fertility challenges.
We and many others call this process embryo donation and embryo adoption (ED/EA), though some in the fertility industry take issue with the term “adoption.” That’s because, legally, transferring custody of embryos is treated as a property transfer rather than an adoption. Under the law, adoptions technically involve human beings who have been born.
Regardless, we and many other clinics believe the term “embryo adoption” is not a misnomer, and that it describes the process rather well. Couples are taking children who are not biologically theirs and welcoming them into their lives, hoping for the opportunity to raise them to adulthood. Many organizations, like ours, even include elements of the traditional adoption process, such as requiring home studies and offering the option to have an open or closed relationship with the genetic donor families.
When the NEDC began operating in 2003, there were only a handful of organizations facilitating embryo donation and embryo adoption. Now there are at least several dozen clinics in the country performing the procedures, though the 564 births as a result of our program constitute the largest total of any organization in the world.
We believe there are compelling reasons for couples encountering fertility challenges to consider this option. For one, the cost –generally in the $6000 to $10,000 range for a first FET with our organization- is more affordable than international or most forms of domestic adoption. Of course, there is also the unique opportunity for the adoptive mother to carry and bond with her child.
Finally, with 625,000 to 1,000,000 embryos estimated to be in frozen storage in this country, our medical director believes it should be a priority for couples to create fewer embryos. Technology has evolved to the point where egg-freezing, a process that creates no ethical dilemma yet leaves fertility options open for the future, is a very compelling choice to consider.
Mark Mellinger is development director at the National Embryo Donation Center, a Christian embryo bank in Knoxville, TN