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Adoption agency pioneers finding wombs for frozen human embryos

WASHINGTON (BP)–A California adoption agency thinks it has found a solution to the dilemma of what to do with an estimated 100,000 frozen human embryos “left over” from in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Adoption is more palatable to some couples than the choices offered by IVF facilities, which include giving up the embryos for research; discarding them; or blindly donating them to another couple.

“We’re an adoption agency,” JoAnn L. Davidson, director of the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, a project of the Nightlight Christian Adoptions agency in Fullerton, Calif., said in a CNSNews.com story May 15. “We have families coming to us from both sides [biological parents and adoptive parents] and we do the matching.”

Since the program started four years ago, Snowflakes has matched 30 genetic families with 22 adopting families, resulting in seven babies being born. Couples who seek out Snowflakes are typically those who are unable to provide eggs or sperm of their own.

Unlike the option of donation offered by many IVF clinics, adoption offers genetic parents control over who can adopt their embryos and raise their children. Genetic parents get to specify traits such as the age, religion and years of marriage of the adoptive parents. Some have stipulated heterosexual couples only.

The catalyst for creating the Snowflakes program was a British law mandating that embryos left over after IVF must be discarded after five years. “So they had a mass destruction of embryos in 1996,” Davidson said. “I know there were 5,000-some embryos that were destroyed.”

That’s when Nightlight’s executive director and a prospective adopting couple hatched the idea of adopting embryos.

“In 1997, one of our adopting families had been going through infertility and needed an egg donor and didn’t feel good about that,” Davidson recounted to CNSNews.com. “Her doctor said she could get embryos from another family. She said, ‘That’s interesting, but could I know who that family is, like I could in an adoption,’ and he said, ‘No.’

“So the idea had come up between the two of them in discussion that why couldn’t we know who the family is? Why can’t we do this like an adoption?” On Dec. 31, 1998, after two “transfers” of embryos, the first embryo adoption was a success. The result was a little girl Davidson calls “Grace.”

Four years later, Snowflakes is still one of a kind. Davidson has not heard of any other embryo adoption program that mirrors the regular adoption process by giving decision-making power to the genetic parents. And since laws governing regular adoption do not apply to embryo adoption, the burden of setting a precedent sits squarely on the shoulders of Snowflakes.

“We’re hoping to set precedents that embryos are treated with the same rights and respect that any other child placed for adoption is given,” Davidson said. “By using the same standards, we’re saying, ‘Hey, we believe these are children; we believe they need to be safeguarded and protected like any other child.'”

The standards include a home study, fingerprints for criminal background checks, child abuse index screening, credit checks, references, employment verification and meeting with social workers who help prepare adopting parents for what it will be like to have an adopted child.

“When the legislators step in to say we need to decide what’s going to happen with embryos,” Davidson said, “now, it’s like, here it is! We’ve got 30 cases right here of how it’s been handled.”

The only opposition to embryo adoption that Snowflakes has encountered, Davidson said, has come from a handful of Catholic laypeople that believe that embryo adoption is wrong because the Catholic Church has condemned IVF.

“Our response always is, well, premarital sex is wrong, and every teenager who walks in here had premarital sex,” Davidson said. “But we don’t say, ‘You’re pregnant because of sin, so go away.’ Our response to them is that these embryos were created, they’re children, they exist — what would you have us do?”

But critics of IVF may not be the only obstacles to adoption. In the midst of the ongoing controversy over the use of human embryos for stem cell research, researchers may come to view adoption as an unwanted competitor.

“They’re going to see us as a competitor if they want to look at it that way,” said Davidson, who has a ready response for the court of public opinion.

“We have seven babies we can show you, and we have another five on the way,” she said. An important difference between adoption and research, she said, is that adoption produces something tangible — a child. The result of research is “maybe, potentially somebody gets to walk that doesn’t walk now. But that’s a maybe potential. Right now I’ve got 12 babies, and I’ve matched 30 families with 22 adopting families.”
Hall is a staff writer with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Christine Hall