What Is Embryo Adoption?

Happy embryo adoption family

Embryo adoption was pioneered by the Nightlight Christian Adoptions agency in 1997. It was established to help families with remaining embryos in frozen storage be empowered to choose an adopting family who would attempt to achieve pregnancy with them.

 
Nightlight named their embryo adoption program Snowflakes because like a snowflake each embryo is frozen and unique. Snowflakes Embryo Adoption is now the largest embryo adoption agency in the world.

 
Embryo adoption uses the best practices of adoption for the placement of remaining embryos from the embryo donor to the recipient, the embryo adopter. The adopted embryos are transferred into the adopting mother’s womb and she gives birth to her adopted child.

 
An adoption home study is required which helps educate the adopting family and provides the embryo donor with peace-of-mind knowing the family has been vetted by the agency.

 
An embryo adoption program is different from an embryo donation program (such as at a fertility clinic) because it is more than simply a medical treatment. An adoption agency is concerned about the social and emotional issues for all members of the adoption triad.

 
Open relationships are encouraged to help the children born to have a connection to both their biological background and the biographical experiences. Embryo donation programs are generally anonymous and little to no information is provided to either the embryo donor or the embryo’s recipient. Secrecy is encouraged rather than privacy.

Why do people adopt embryos?

People choose to adopt embryos often because they have been diagnosed with infertility. They frequently have gone through one or more IVF cycles of their own without success and are now contemplating the purchase of donor eggs. Many test tube babies that are now in frozen storage were also created using donor eggs and/or sperm.

 
While many fertility clinic IVF success rates appear to be high, those reported rates are not taking into consideration all of the types of infertility reasons a couple may be facing infertility in the first place.  Research has shown that ⅓ of the time the infertility diagnosis is due to the female, ⅓ of the time it is a type of male infertility, and ⅓ of the time it cannot be identified.

 

The only medical requirement for participating in an embryo adoption program is to have a functioning uterus.  The woman must get a letter from a physician stating there are no contraindications to pregnancy.

People who have successfully adopted embryos have:

  • Infertility from endometriosis
  • Infertility from PCOS
  • Infertility from premature ovarian failure
  • Infertility from premature menopause
  • Male factor infertility
  • Hereditary genetic disorders
  • Infertility due to no ovaries or fallopian tubes
  • Used a surrogate or gestational carrier

Other people adopt embryos because they like the idea of embryo adoption and they want to add to their family. They are not suffering from an infertility diagnosis.

What Is A Human Embryo?

Often people are not clear about what a human embryo is.

 
In order to conceive a baby an egg cell and a sperm cell need to combine. This is called fertilization. When the egg and sperm are joined a new life has been created.

 
Each cell (egg/sperm) contains 23 chromosomes. Chromosomes are thread-like molecules and carry hereditary information such as hair, skin and eye color. They are made of protein and one molecule of DNA, which contains the embryo’s genetic instructions, passed down from parents.
 

During in vitro fertilization eggs are taken from the woman’s body and sperm from the man’s and they are combined in a laboratory to create embryos. When this procedure was first performed it was called a test tube baby.

 

Closeup picture of an embryo

Frequently more embryos are created during the in vitro fertilization process than the couple will end up using to achieve pregnancy for themselves. These embryos will be frozen and stored at the fertility clinic or in a cryobank. Eventually a decision must be made about what to do with remaining frozen embryos.
 

  • Keep them frozen and stored. Pay an annual storage fee.
  • Thaw the embryos and discard them.
  • Donate the embryos to science.
  • Donate the embryos for reproduction.

What does it mean to adopt an embryo?

Embryo adoption is similar to the adoption of a born infant except it starts 9 months earlier in the process.
 
Embryos are created during a treatment called in vitro fertilization. Often more embryos are created than the family is able/willing to give birth. These remaining embryos are cryopreserved and stored.  There are over 1,000,000 embryos in frozen storage in the U.S.
 

When a family has decided they will not be using their frozen embryos they have four choices:

  • Continue storing the embryos
  • Thaw and discard the embryos
  • Donate the embryos to science
  • Donate the embryos for reproduction

If they choose donation for reproduction they can do that anonymously or they can choose the recipient/adopting family through an embryo adoption agency.
 
After the adoption is finalized, the adopting family will work with a Reproductive Endocrinologist to have a frozen embryo transfer (FET). This procedure will thaw some of the embryos the family has adopted and transfer the surviving embryos into the adopting mother’s uterus.
 

If a pregnancy is achieved she will give birth to her adopted child in due time.

What is a “Snowflake Baby”?

The term ‘snowflake baby’ was first coined by Nightlight when children were born through their embryo adoption program named Snowflakes. The organization gives each adopted baby born a sequential number. There are now over 750 snowflake babies born through the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program.

Other fertility clinics, organizations have picked up on this term to refer to all babies born from donor embryos as ‘snowflake babies’.

Is Embryo Adoption successful?

The success rate of embryonic adoption, as measured by live births per embryo transfer, depend on the embryo’s quality, the egg donor’s age, the number of embryos transferred, and the embryo’s developmental stage when frozen. According to data from the CDC, the live birth rate with embryo donation is 43-45% percent. Research studies have shown a higher pregnancy success rate using frozen embryos vs fresh embryos. The number of children born from frozen embryos likely exceeds 10,000.

Five factors that can increase embryo adoption success.

Understanding particulars about embryo donation and adoption can increase the success rate.

Using donor embryos is on the rise

There is an increasing demand for donor embryos as the cost of ART treatments and domestic infant and international adoption program fees continue to increase.
 

“The number of embryo donations nearly doubled between 2009 and 2013.”
NBC Nightly News March 31, 2016

Embryo adoption is on the rise

What is the process of embryo adoption?

Couples who choose to use in vitro fertilization to achieve pregnancy often have more embryos made than they end up using for their own family building. Leftover embryos are cryopreserved and kept frozen.
 
If the remaining embryos are to be given a chance to be born, they will be donated for reproduction. This can be done through an adoption agency such as Nightlight.
 

Adopting families who are interested in using donated embryos to achieve a pregnancy are able to secure embryos through an embryo adoption agency. The agency will follow adoption best practices. A home study will be completed. During the matching process the agency staff will take into consideration many factors.

  • Donor preferences in a match.
  • Adopter preferences in a match.
  • How many embryos would the family like to adopt?
  • All of the embryos a donor has will be given to one adopting family.
  • How many children would the adopting family like to have?
  • Is the adopting family financially able to pursue multiple frozen embryo transfers?
  • Family profiles (mini-autobiographies) are created by both donor and adopter.
  • Family profiles are reviewed.
  • Adopting families receive a comprehensive medical history of the donor family.
  • Embryology reports are evaluated by the adopting family’s doctor.

Once a match is mutually agreed upon, legal contracts are reviewed and approved by both parties. Embryos can then be shipped to the fertility clinic where the adopting family will have their frozen embryo transfer procedure.
 
If the embryos are being donated through a fertility clinic, the medical staff will frequently divide multi-embryo sets among multiple waiting patients. For example: if a patient donates 6 embryos to the clinic program, those six embryos may be given to 2-3 recipient patients anonymously.
 

There are also embryo donor/recipient match websites to help families connect with one another. Each of these have their own procedures and limitations.

Infographic: Understanding the Cost of Infertility Treatments and Embryo Adoption Services

How much does it cost to adopt an embryo?

One of the first questions people have is how much does embryo adoption cost? Embryo adoption falls into the category of medical science called Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART). There are many different ART treatments. The use of donor embryos for pregnancy is one.
 

Embryo adoption is one of the least expensive ART options. And unlike other forms of adoption, it allows the woman to experience pregnancy and childbirth.

 
Adoption can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

 
A single round of in vitro fertilization can cost — can run between $12,000 and $17,000. This price can easily double or triple based upon the number of egg retrieval cycles and frozen embryo cycles needed to achieve pregnancy.

 
This infographic reviews the different types of ART treatments, adoption options and their costs. The total cost for an embryo adoption averages about $10,000 – $15,000 depending upon where embryos are secured.

EMbryo Adoption Family Stories

Are there embryo adoption horror stories? Infertility is a horror story all of its own. Embryo adoption is an option available to families to help them achieve their dream of children. It also is a welcome choice to families who have remaining frozen embryos to choose life and an adopting family for their embryos.

“I Adopted Embryos From the Woman Who Became My Best Friend”

Kelli Gassman always knew that when she had children, they’d be doted on by her little sister, Ericka. “If there was ever a baby in a room, Ericka was holding it. She was just that person,” she says.

Neither one of the siblings got the future she had planned on: Kelli struggled with infertility, and Ericka, at age 37, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was a hard time in my life,” says Kelli. “I was doubly grieving, seeing my sister get closer to her passing and knowing that the possibility of children seemed to be ebbing away for me.”  Read the story.

The First Snowflake Baby Turns 21

Listen to this two part radio interview of Hannah Strege and her parents with Dr. James Dobson. Learn about how embryo adoption was invented by this family and their tireless efforts to help frozen embryos become adopted and born.

Listen to Part 1

Listen to Part 2

Embryo Adoption Helps Couple with Genetic Disease Have Children

The Nix family went through embryo adoption twice and gave birth to two boys. Carrie said she always wanted to have kids, but knew she and Jimmy could not have biological children due to his genetic disease.

“There was 50 percent chance we would’ve passed it on,” said Carrie Nix. “We decided 50 percent was just too much.”

Embryo adoption was Carrie’s opportunity to experience pregnancy. It was Jimmy’s chance to keep his kids from going through the pain and medical procedures he has endured.

Embryo Donation: How does it work?

Embryo donation through an adoption agency takes all the stress and worry about how to find an adopting family for remaining embryos.

 

The Food and Drug Administration has specific guidelines for the donation of human embryos. It’s important to work with an organization that is following these rules and regulations – and helpful to find one who is experienced.

 

An embryo adoption agency will allow the embryo donor to choose the family who will adopt the set of embryos. The agency will collect a list of preferences in match and a mini family autobiography for both donor and adopting families to help facilitate a successful match.

 

After a match is agreed upon, all of the embryos in the donor’s set will be placed with one adopting family. This gives the adopter the opportunity for multiple pregnancy attempts without having to adopt additional embryos. It also provides the adopter with the opportunity to give birth to genetic siblings.

 

After legal contracts, provided by the agency, are reviewed and signed the donor’s embryos will be shipped to the adopting family’s chosen fertility clinic. They will schedule an FET.

 

The agency will keep the donor informed about scheduled FETs and the birth of a baby. The agency will be encouraging both families to pursue an open relationship with one another which is in the best interest of the child. It is so easy with services like 23 and Me and social media to find siblings and parents. It’s better for the information to come from the adults involved in the adoption.

IVF Facts – Number of cycles performed in 2016

Fertility clinics in the U.S. report to the Centers for Disease Control regarding ART treatments performed at the clinic.

 
The chart below, from the most recent CDC ART Report provides a breakdown of the types of IVF cycles performed in 2016.

Figure 2: Types of ART Cycles - United States, 2016

Embryo adoption pros and cons

Participating in an embryo adoption gives the adopting family:

Success over previous infertility

  • Many couples who have experienced unsuccessful IVF treatments have used embryo adoption and now are parents.

Control over the prenatal environment

  • Beginning prior to the pregnancy! Adopting families know exactly what prenatal care is received and have control over what the developing baby is and isn’t exposed to in utero.

Prenatal bonding

  • The spouse and extended family members get to enjoy prenatal bonding too. Adoptive mothers get to enjoy the excitement of baby showers, doctor check-ups, bonding with her spouse during the pregnancy, preparing for bringing the baby home.

Postnatal bonding and the ability to nurse the child

  • Unlike any other type of adoption the mother-child bonding begins immediately after birth. The biological process gives the mother the ability to nurse her child. The baby can receive all of the medical benefits available from colostrum and breast milk.

Medical flexibility

  • Some embryo adoption organizations are centralized: the adopter travels to a specific location in the U.S. for their medical care.
  • Some have clinic partnerships geographically dispersed throughout the U.S.
  • It is possible to have the FET performed at the clinic where the embryos were created.
  • There are physicians who will perform a natural treatment for infertility for female FET cycles eliminating the need for the adopting mom to take hormonal drugs to prepare her for a transfer.

Security of placement

  • The relinquishment of all parental rights and responsibilities is completed at the time contracts are signed. When the frozen embryo transfer is scheduled to be completed, the adopting family has full control of the embryo set.
  • After the woman gives birth to the child her name is placed on the child’s birth certificate as well as the name of her husband. This is true in all 50 states.
  • No embryo donating family has ever requested to ‘take back’ a child born to the adopting family from their donated set of embryos.

Ability to give birth to genetic siblings

  • If a larger set of embryos is adopted the family has an opportunity to have multiple frozen embryo transfers using the same set of embryos, thus allowing them the opportunity to give birth to genetic siblings.

Embryos of different ethnicities are available

  • The ethnicities of embryos is a reflection of the patients participating in IVF. Embryos of many ethnicities and mixed ethnicities are available through embryo adoption.

Embryo adoption eliminates the creation of more embryos and reduces the number of embryos in frozen storage.

  • There are now over 1,000,000 embryos in frozen storage in the U.S.
  • If a couple needs to use donor eggs or sperm to create embryos, embryo adoption is a more cost effective alternative. Many donated embryos were created with donor egg and/or sperm.

The cons of embryo adoption are limited but significant. 

 

There is no guarantee of pregnancy

  • No one can guarantee the biological process of pregnancy and childbirth.
  • No guarantees that embryos will survive the freezing and thawing process.
  • Miscarriage can occur, but not at a significantly higher rate of a normal pregnancy.
  • Birth defects can occur, but but not at a significantly higher rate of a normal pregnancy.

It may take more than one frozen embryo transfer cycle to achieve a pregnancy.

However, the pregnancy success rates for embryo adoption are encouraging at 43-45% per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. For comparison, conception through non-medical methods is only 20-25%.

Embryo Adoption and Embryonic Stem Cell Research

In the early 2000s embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) became very controversial in the U.S. Researchers believe that many cures for human disease can be solved using these cells from human embryos. Clearly, cells in the nascent human embryo will develop into every cellular structure needed to create a human being. Unfortunately, the embryos used in ESCR will be destroyed in the process. Another unfortunate fact is that no successful therapies or cures have been created using embryonic human stem cells.

 
The good news is that researchers and medical scientists have found great success using adult stem cells, often taken from the body of the person who will benefit from the stem cell derived treatment.

 
Over 1,000,000 people have benefited from the use of adult stem cell treatments, while ESCR has yielded no successful treatments to date.

 
Dr. James Thomson, the founder of the field of ESCR said, “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”

 
August 9, 2001

President George W. Bush gave a speech from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on the ethics and fate of US federal funding for stem cell research. He spoke about the creation of a special council to oversee stem cell research. ESCR was allowed but limited.

 
On July 19, 2006 President George Bush signed the first veto of his presidency to reject legislation passed by congress that would significantly expand federal support for the research of embryonic stem cells.

George W Bush expanding federal support for the research of embryo adoption stem cells

Standing behind the President that day were a number of families who had given birth to their children using donated embryos. The President said, “This bill would support the taking of innocent human life. Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value.”

 
In Bush’s memoir Decision Points he reveals, “When Karl Zinsmeister, my domestic policy adviser, suggested inviting a group of snowflake babies to the White House, I thought the idea was perfect. Each had come from a frozen embryo that, rather than being destroyed for research, was implanted in an adoptive mother.”

 
President Barack Obama, on March 9, 2009,  signed an Executive order revoking President Bush’s 2006 veto. The National Institutes for Health was given 120 days to review and set new guidelines for ESCR. The new Obama policy allows federally funded researchers to experiment on hundreds of viable ES cell lines restricted under Bush. This new Executive order opened the door to billions of dollars of additional taxpayer funds to support ESCR.

Where to find donor embryos

There are several options available to people who are looking for donated embryos to achieve a pregnancy.

An adoption agency will apply the best practices of adoption as the adopting family is matched with a donor family. Often, more embryos and larger sets of embryos are available through an adoption agency program.

Adoption agencies will be encouraging open relationships as being in the best interests of the children born from an embryo donation.

Agencies generally have a single all-inclusive fee that covers all administrative costs for enabling both the donor family and the adopting family to complete FDA rules and regulation, acquisition of donor families, matching services, legal contracts, counseling, embryo shipment and post-adoption support.

Not every fertility clinic in the U.S. has an internal embryo donation program. Those that do often have waiting lists of patients who would like to use donor embryos, but no embryos available. Waiting times can be long which can be frustrating when the intended mother is of an advanced maternal age.

Fertility clinic donation programs are simply a medical treatment called a frozen
embryo transfer and operate under an umbrella of anonymity. IVF success rates by clinic can vary greatly.

Figure 1: Locations of ART Clinics in the United States and Puerto Rico, 2016

Fertility clinics that specialize in embryo donation

These clinics work diligently to attract embryo donors as their focus to help recipient families secure and give birth to children via embryo donation.

Primarily these specialized clinics are located in one location and the embryo
recipients must travel to that location for medical appointments.

There are a number of websites that facilitate helping donors meet adopters. Each of them operate uniquely. Often the two parties have to coordinate matching, contracts, shipping and other aspects of the process themselves.

How Long Does it Take to Get Pregnant?

Interested in knowing the averages for how long it takes to get pregnant? Following are the rates of women who conceive naturally within a year of trying, broken down by age.

  • Women aged 20 to 24 have an 86 percent chance.
  • Women aged 25 to 29 have a 78 percent chance.
  • Women aged 30 to 34 have a 63 percent chance.
  • Women aged 35 to 39 have a 52 percent chance.
  • Women aged 40 to 44 have a 36 percent chance.
  • Women aged 45 to 49 have a 5 percent chance.
  • Women older than 50 have less than a 1 percent chance.

There is no hard and fast rule for how long it takes to get pregnant, however. This is just a snapshot of the odds. Every woman — and every couple — is different.

How long does it take to get pregnant?