Adoption and assisted reproduction have a lot in common!
Open adoption for embryos
I’m a PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education; offered to all prospective adoptive parents in Ontario) adoption trainer who helps hopeful adoptive parents prepare for their family journey. My children often ask what I talk about in the groups. Once, when my daughter was seven, I mentioned that we discuss whether it is a good idea for adopted kids to know their birth parents. I explained that sometimes, the adults worry their adopted child might be confused about who their parents are if the adoptive family and birth family visit each other. “What do you think about that?” I asked her.
“It would be confusing NOT to know who my birth parents are,” she answered straightforwardly.
Open adoptions have become common throughout Canada, especially in domestic infant programs where birth parents choose to make an adoption plan. Recent research from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute supports the simple fact my daughter knows instinctively—that openness is good for adopted children (Siegel & Smith, 2012). However, as I’ve learned at PRIDE trainings, there’s still a lot of work to be done to educate the public.
Contact: an open question
When it comes to embryo donation and other forms of donor-assisted reproduction, however, the issue of whether or not it’s good for donor and recipient families to have contact with each other is still very much an open question. Openness is much less common in these situations than it is in adoption, even though many of the elements are the same.
“Open embryo donation provides the children born through this process the opportunity to fully know their genetic roots and to have choices in their future,” says Mary Howlett Nero, Embryo Donation Program Co-ordinator for Beginnings Family Services in Hamilton, Ontario.
Beginnings has been offering a national open embryo donation option for fertility patients across Canada since 2010. Eight babies have been born through the program so far. As an adoption agency, Beginnings has been facilitating open adoptions for infants since 2000.
Some research has been done around open embryo donation, including a few recent studies from New Zealand that draw comparisons between open embryo donation and open adoption. New Zealand mandates this openness model. Participants in studies for the journal Human Reproduction actually used open adoption examples to explain what they expected in the open embryo donation process.
What can embryo donors learn from open adoption?
The experiences of embryo donors share many similarities with birth families who choose an adoption plan for their child.
Look ahead. Many couples choose embryo donation because they see their embryos as having the potential for life and are concerned for their future welfare. Like birth families, embryo donors may worry about what will happen to their embryos. They may also want ongoing updates about the child’s life, just like many birth parents do.
Choose the future. In open embryo donation, the donor parents are shown profiles of potential recipient families and can choose a family based on what they value for the future of their embryos. Donors may connect with a recipient family because they share similar lifestyles, values, and desires for openness. Birth families in open adoption also have the opportunity to choose the adoptive family for their child based on what they hope for their baby.
“The donors we are working with appreciate the opportunity to choose the family that they are matched with and to develop a relationship with a family that may live close to them or with whom they have a lot in common,” says Howlett Nero.
Sibling relationships matter. In most cases, embryos are being donated because a couple has decided that their family is complete. Any children born through embryo donation will be genetic siblings to the children in the donor family, and the families often desire for these siblings to know each other. In open adoption, sibling relationships are often the most important relationship that is cultivated long term, even if children are adopted into several different homes.
Genetic ties can’t be denied. Even though the donor family is very willing to donate their embryos in order to offer hope to another family, the child born of the process will be genetically linked to them forever. This can be helpful when it comes to sharing medical information, but can also be challenging because some feelings of loss may be experienced. As with birth families in adoption, the feelings of loss can actually feel less difficult if there is an open relationship with the recipient or adoptive family.
“We hope that openness will provide the children born through embryo donation with choices in their future and Beginnings is committed to providing them and their families with ongoing support to deal with any issues that might arise,” says Howlett Nero.
What can embryo recipients learn from open adoption?
Recipient and adoptive families both grow their families by raising children who are not genetically tied to them. The primary difference between recipient and adoptive parents is that couples receiving a donated embryo experience the pregnancy and delivery of their adopted child.
Embrace history. Being comfortable with the child’s genetic and social history is important for both recipient and adoptive parents. When a child is adopted through open adoption, much of this information is available first hand and can be updated as the relationship between birth and adoptive families evolves.
“Many of the families we have worked with are developing strong emotional ties with one another and most are planning to keep in close contact with each other,” says Howlett Nero.
Encourage caring relationships. Can a child really have too many caring people in their life? For the embryo recipient family, the support of the donor family can be invaluable for answering questions about the child’s genetic traits, medical needs, and social history.
In adoptive families, having access to the child’s birth family through various ages and stages can be helpful in supporting the child’s identity long-term.
Focus on the child first
The needs of the child are the focus of both open adoption and open embryo donation. Children deserve to know their history and how they came into the world, as it helps them form their identity and gives them the foundation for their future.
“It is important that open embryo donation is child focused every step of the way,” says Howlett Nero.
By choosing to embrace the continuity and connections that exist for a child, parents—donor, birth, recipient, and adoptive—help their child have good feelings about family, positive self-esteem, and above all, less confusion about who they are.
Angela Krueger writes and talks about open adoption parenting as a PRIDE Trainer, Parent Facilitator, and freelance writer in Ontario.