Perspectives: Embryo "adoption"


Rachel Carrier
Focus on Adoption magazine

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Embryos on ice

Most people probably don’t know that there are are 60,000 embryos sitting in cryogenic storage in fertility centres throughout Canada, left over from fertility treatments. Some of these embryos will be used by their genetic families for future attempts at conception, but what happens to the rest? Some will be thawed and disposed of; others will be donated to medical research.

Some families aren’t comfortable with those solutions, though. They may choose a different option: donating them to other infertile people.

Traditionally, international or domestic adoption or specialized medical treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF) were the only options for infertile people. Now, another option, embryo donation--also known as “embryo adoption”–-is becoming more well known and available.

Is it really adoption?

The terms embryo adoption and embryo donation are often used interchangeably. The term “embryo adoption” has no legal meaning, and is not used by clinics in Canada; because of this, we use “embryo donation” throughout this article. In the US, however, the term “embryo adoption” is quite popular, which may be why it’s being used colloquially in Canada with more frequency.

In both countries, there’s significant controversy around whether it’s appropriate to use the term “adoption” to refer to a process that, legally speaking, is a type of property transfer. The terms “snowflakes,” “snowflake babies,” and “snowflake children,” which some agencies and individuals use for frozen embryos and for children born from embryo adoption, are equally controversial.

The fundamental aspect of embryo donation is the legally binding transfer of ownership of embryos from the donor family to the recipient family. In both the United States and Canada, embryos are the legal property of their genetic parents, and the laws that apply to the donation process are completely different than those that apply to traditional adoptions.

An exciting new choice

For some people, embryo donation appeals because everyone understands the difficult experience of infertility. For donating individuals, embryo donation allows them to give someone else the opportunity to experience pregnancy. The receiving person is able to control how the baby is nurtured in utero and form a prenatal connection with him or her.

For Beth and Neville McInnis, embryo donation was the perfect way for them to begin their family. “It was a relatively quick option that gave us the ability to carry and nurture our future child, along with the time to grow and prepare for the life changes that were coming when we welcomed this baby into our lives,” says Beth.

Beth and Neville met while working together at a firm in Vancouver. Their relationship bloomed almost as fatefully as their experience with embryo donation. Although they experienced many difficulties with attempting to get pregnant and carry a child to term, they refused to become discouraged. “We’ll get lucky,” Beth kept telling herself. “We’ll have a baby.”

After they struggled with multiple miscarriages, failed IVF treatments, and other infertility challenges, Beth and Neville considered both local and international adoption. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons related to their specific circumstances, they discovered their chances of adopting an infant were very slim.

That’s when the subject of embryo donation came up in a support group chat in which Beth participated. Someone in the group had extra embryos and was looking to donate them to another family. Around the same time, Beth and Neville received a call from Embryo Adoption Services of Cedar Park in Issaquah, Washington, with news of another possible embryo match. They were excited, but within the week, both opportunities fell through.

Although devastated, the couple continued to hope. Things fell into place two days later: they were matched with the Cedar Park embryos for a second time, and the genetic family hoped for an open relationship. They’re now the proud parents of a healthy son.

Similarities and differences

Medically, embryo adoption and donation are one and the same. The recipient woman must undergo extensive treatment to prepare her body to receive an embryo, and the frozen embryos are transferred to the recipient using the same procedure.

For some families, it’s the perfect compromise. Embryo donation gives an individual or couple the ability to experience pregnancy and carry their child to term despite their lack of a genetic relationship. It’s part adoption, part surrogacy, and all love.

Whether the couple uses a fertility clinic or an agency, the embryos are donated and matched to recipient couples. In the case of a fertility clinic, however, the embryos are often donated anonymously, and there may not be a lengthy application process.

If the couple uses an agency, however, like Beth and Neville did, the process is much more similar to a traditional adoption. Recipient families usually undergo a homestudy, reference checks, education workshops, and an extensive selection and matching process between the genetic and adopting parents that includes the exchange of full medical and social histories. Unlike in traditional adoptions, however, these processes are not legally mandated; they’re set up at the discretion of the agency or clinic.

“The process is exciting, hopeful, prayerful, and humbling,” Beth says.

The costs of an embryo adoption are comparable to traditional adoption, although in addition to the cost of a social study, criminal check, and agency fees, there are costs associated with the actual transfer of the frozen embryos.

Openness is possible

There can be openness in embryo donation, just as there is in traditional adoption. In the past, fertility clinics usually facilitated anonymous donations, but many now facilitate open or semi-open arrangements. Most agencies give the genetic parents even more control over the process and encourage them to create open relationships with recipient families. Agencies can even assist in preparing openness agreements like those used in traditional adoptions.

Beth and Neville knew they wanted to support an open relationship with their son’s genetic parents and sibling. “I think it’s incredibly important for a child to know their roots,” Beth says. “Knowing their genetic family provides an additional layer of love and support.”

Beth and Neville visit their son’s genetic parents and sibling several times a year, and see them as something of an extended family. “We talk very openly to Tristan about his family and share his story with others within his earshot,” says Beth.

A new horizon

Although embryo donations have been growing more popular in the US for approximately 15 years, options in Canada are limited. Because of this, Canadian couples like Beth and Neville often work with agencies in the US. Some even travel to countries like Mexico and the Czech Republic, where costs may be lower.

In Canada, several clinics and agencies facilitate embryo donation. None of the Canadian programs use the terms “embryo adoption” or “snowflakes.”

With infertility rates on the rise and thousands of embryos stored on ice, the possibilities for new Canadian families to be built through embryo donation seem almost limitless. Only time will tell how popular this choice will become.

Rachel Carrier was AFABC’s Development and Communications summer student in 2015. She is finishing her undergraduate degree at Simon Fraser University in English and Communications. She lives in Maple Ridge with her family.

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