Courtesy Melissa Eggleton

Embryo adoption creates babies – and controversy

Some families explicitly select leftover fertilized embryos based on background and values of biological parents

As she approached her early 40s, Lynda wanted a baby more than anything. After a long struggle with infertility and unsuccessful attempts with in vitro fertilization treatments, Lynda and her husband, Chip, decided to adopt.

“We always knew that — even if it meant taking another nontraditional route — that we wanted to have children,” said Lynda, who does not want her last name used because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But the Wisconsin couple did not embark on the usual adoption procedure. Instead, they pursued what’s known as embryo adoption, a process that involved implanting frozen embryos in Lynda that were donated by a couple in another state.

So-called embryo adoptions have resulted in more than 900 babies born in the U.S. since 1997. The Embryo Adoption Awareness Center estimates there are roughly 600,000 frozen embryos currently in storage at fertility clinics across the country. Couples who pursue in vitro fertilization (IVF) to conceive a baby usually have limited options for what to do with any embryos that go unused: destroy them, donate them to research or donate anonymously to another couple. Advocates for embryo adoption say it provides an additional option for families who want to have a connection to any children produced from their unused embryos.

But the term “adoption” as it relates to embryos is a controversial one. Some of the people behind the embryo adoption movement — though not all — are devout Christians who are explicitly anti-abortion. The issue has also become a hot-button topic in the debates on women’s reproductive rights and whether embryos have legal rights.

It has come under scrutiny by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). In an opinion published in 2013, the group’s ethics committee referred to the term as “deceptive because it reinforces a conceptualization of the embryo as a fully entitled legal being.”  

Dr. Owen Davis, the ASRM’s president-elect, explained the decision. “You are putting [couples] through a procedure more akin to adopting an actual live child who has attained personhood, and this is really not the same. And would be considered to be very intrusive.”

Fertilized embryos in a tank filled with liquid nitrogen, kept if patients require them at a later date.
Universal Images Group / Getty Images

But, putting aside such topics, Lynda and Chip’s main aim was simply to have a baby of their own. “What made this exciting was not only would we be giving an embryo life, but Lynda would have the experience of being pregnant,” Chip said. They turned to a program run by Nightlight Christian Adoptions, in California. The pro-life adoption agency, a not-for-profit, advocates for open adoptions, in which couples donating their embryos agree to maintain open communication with the adoptive family and vice versa. The process costs about $15,000.

Once their embryo adoption application was submitted, it took a month for Lynda and Chip to be matched with Mike and Melissa Eggleton of Fort Worth, Texas, who donated their 14 remaining embryos. The Eggletons have twin girls and a son after going through IVF. They said they wanted to give their embryos a chance at life, and chose Lynda and Chip because they shared similar family values and interests.

“Everything just kind of matched up really well. They were very down-to-earth, they had the same values as us. It was just a natural fit,” Melissa said.

“The whole process is kind of like,” added Mike. “You get to pick everything from socioeconomic status to how much contact you have. I mean, it’s the whole spectrum.”

Throughout Lynda’s pregnancy, the two families developed a strong bond through emails and phone calls and eventually met for the first time in person in Wisconsin. Then the day finally came when Lynda and Chip’s daughter, Cally, was born. When Melissa saw photos of Cally, she cried. “I looked at her and I thought, oh my goodness, [Cally] looks just like ours [children]. She was beautiful, and she would have a life.”

There are no guarantees of success. Only 37 percent of frozen embryos result in a live birth, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A survey conducted by the ASRM in 2008 showed that 54 percent of couples who went through IVF treatments planned to keep their embryos frozen for future use, and only 7 percent planned to donate their frozen embryos to another couple. At the National Embryo Donation Center, which offers embryo donation and adoption programs, only 50 percent of clients typically want to pursue an open adoption arrangement.

Lynda and Chip hope to add to their family one day using the remaining frozen embryos. They continue to share photos of Cally with the Eggletons and have visited them twice in Texas for Cally to meet her biological siblings. “We have our daughter. She’s our dream come true,” said Lynda. “Beyond that, we have this whole additional family now that’s a part of our life — and a part of Cally’s.”

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