Center encourages donation of frozen embryos
■ This program offers couples who already have embryos in storage the option of giving them to others waiting to "adopt."
By Andis Robeznieks — Posted Feb. 9, 2004
The Christian Medical Assn. has decided to do something about the fact that there are some 400,000 human embryos in frozen storage in the United States. It's trying to get them "adopted."
The CMA helped develop the National Embryo Donation Center at the Southeastern Fertility Center on the campus of the Baptist Hospital for Women in Knoxville, Tenn., to handle the medical, legal and social needs of donors and recipients. "Right now our focus is getting donation of embryos -- not new ones -- but existing ones already in storage," said CMA spokeswoman Margie Shealy.
Twenty couples have donated embryos to the center but more than 140 couples are waiting to adopt.
The process is not without its critics. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League sees it as a way to develop full legal rights for embryos. Other critics wonder if people shouldn't be adopting children already born instead.
But JoAnn Eiman, spokeswoman for the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program in Fullerton, Calif., said the frozen embryo and the parentless child are in "identical" situations. "They're both children waiting for families," she said.
Others object to using the term "adoption." But the National Embryo Donation Center's director, Jeffrey Keenan, MD, said it's a good description. "Legally, they're not [adopted], but socially, ethically, morally, they may be," he said.
Dr. Keenan said there are three reasons people adopt embryos: because they want to experience pregnancy and birth, because adopting American newborns has become more difficult and because they have sympathy for embryos in frozen storage.
"We all started as embryos, and I feel that we should respect these embryos," Dr. Keenan said. "They're not all going to turn into adults, but they are human and they have the same potential as you or I."
Uncomfortable decisions ahead
About 10,000 embryos in storage are earmarked for donation, Dr. Keenan said, but of the 380,000 or so being kept for fertility treatments, he expects that half will never be used.
"Really, they're just putting off an uncomfortable decision," he said of couples who are finished building a family but still have embryos in storage and are uncertain about what to do with them.
"Most physicians do not bring this up with their patients," Dr. Keenan said. "My take-home message to physicians is: Get your patients to make that uncomfortable decision."
Besides donation to another couple, other options are keeping embryos in storage until they become unusable and must be discarded, donating them for research or destroying them immediately.
"For couples who find those other options distasteful, this is a perfect solution," Dr. Keenan said.
The National Embryo Donation Center has several options for donating couples. They can do so anonymously, they can choose the couple who receives their embryos and have no contact with them after the child is born or they can have full contact. Dr. Keenan said the Snowflakes Program operates much like a traditional adoption agency, while the NEDC has more of a medical component.
"What we offer is somewhere in between a fertility process and a traditional adoption with a little bit of both," he said.
With so many embryos in storage, Dr. Keenan said a network of donation centers eventually will form.
"At some point in time, this will be just one of several regional embryo donation centers," he said. "We see a huge potential need."
The 6-year-old Snowflakes program is coming off its busiest year yet. Of the 46 babies whose births it helped arrange, 20 were born last year and at least 13 more are expected this year, Eiman said, adding that she doesn't see the NEDC as a competitor.
"There are so many embryos," she said. "We don't need to be the only agency."