Embryo 'adoption' program gives hope to infertile couples
Controversial 'frozen orphanage' becoming a more viable answer
By Angela Woodall
Inside Bay Area
"Jonah, Jonah, Jonah," his mother says, smiling gently and sighing
lightly. Jonah doesn't want to eat.
A peanut butter sandwich and a hot dog don't tempt him. He finally
accepts a bowl of Chex cereal. He settles down in his highchair and watches
an episode of Barney as his mother feeds him.
Jonah's pretty much like any 2-year-old. He gets tired and hungry and
cranky. He likes Play-Doh, and his blanky is balled up in his bed. But Jonah
David Vest is not like any 2-year-old. In fact, biologically he is not even
2. Biologically he is 6 years old.
Jonah - or the embryo that became Jonah - was frozen six years ago in
liquid nitrogen at minus-196 degrees centigrade.
Soon Jonah's sister will be born and will be biologically older than
her big brother. His mother, Cara, is six months pregnant with Jonah's
genetic sister, who was frozen nine years ago.
Although he does not know it yet, the technology that preserved Jonah
is tangled up in a raging moral and political debate over when life begins.
It is a debate fundamental to the controversy about stem-cell research,
abortion and fertility clinics.
Embryo adoption, an increasingly visible option for what becomes of
frozen embryos - and the way a four-celled embryo in a frozen orphanage
became part of the Vest family - is also being pulled into the fray.
The procedure, called cryopreservation, has a science fiction
quality - thawing deep frozen embryos years later and implanting them in a
woman's womb. But Cara never saw it that way. In the end she was a mother, a
role she had hoped for since she was a little girl. She longed to be
pregnant, wear maternity clothes, breast feed and experience everything
about becoming a mom, the 36-year-old recalls.
You might expect a little boy who was frozen for six years to look or
behave differently than other children. He doesn't. Today the golden-haired
toddler insists on carrying his bucket of Play-Doh with him into the living
room. "Jonah, bring the Play-Doh back in here," his mother says. The way she
says his name is almost a sentence. But she lets it go when he says the
bucket is his purse, "like mommy's." She asks instead, "Is it heavy like
Jonah is the answer to her prayers. The Vests tried to have a baby
until Cara's husband Gregg was diagnosed with a sperm disorder. Then Cara
was told she had the "ovaries of a 40-year-old." They considered using a
donated egg or adopting a child until on her way home from work in 1999 Cara
heard about an embryo adoption agency.
She was listening to Focus on the Family, a Christian radio show. She
called the agency, Snowflakes, when she got home. Two years later she and
Gregg had adopted 23 embryos.
Saying the Vests are religious doesn't do justice to the depth of
their faith. They drive 45 minutes every Sunday to their Methodist church in
an Odyssey minivan that has a metal fish emblem symbolizing Christianity on
The small silver cross she wears swings forward when she leans over
Jonah to feed him lunch. The Vests' conversation is sprinkled with mentions
of "God's will" and "Thank God," although they aren't like the stereotypical
Bible Belt Evangelicals livening up talk shows across America.
As deep as their faith is in God is their belief that life begins at
conception, so adopting 23 embryos meant being the parents of 23 children.
Never mind only two-thirds would survive thawing, and even fewer would
develop into babies.
At least these embryos would have the chance at life God had given
them instead of being disposed of or used in stem cell research.
Snowflakes pairs infertile couples - and the occasional single woman
(gay couples are not encouraged to apply) - with embryos left over from in
vitro fertilization procedures.
From the start, embryo adoption programs developed from the belief an
embryo is already a human being, needing only a womb to help it grow up.
Acting on this conviction, the Snowflakes embryo adoption program began in
1997 as an extension of Nightlight Christian Adoptions based in Fullerton.
The United States doesn't have a firm policy for the disposal of
frozen embryos. There is no limit to how long they can stay frozen before
they are destroyed. In England, by contrast, frozen embryos are destroyed
after five years. England is a "civilized, rational and modern country and
here they were destroying embryos," Snowflakes Director Lori Haze says.
The British policy troubled Nightlight's executive director, Ron
Stoddart. Stoddart worried that as IVF became more common in the United
States, there would be more and more frozen embryos and it could happen here
To forestall what he saw as a tragedy, he founded Snowflakes, applying
the policies of traditional adoption to frozen embryos. Snowflakes is the
first agency in the United States to apply adoption practices to frozen
embryos stored in U.S. fertility clinics. But, with its departure from
traditional adoption, it kicked up a little dust.
Calling it adoption is controversial, Haze says.
"Our detractors don't like the fact that we're attributing human
status to the embryos."
But she denied it was an attempt to attack abortion rights.
"First and foremost it's about the best interest of any resulting
Cara sees it as a cure to infertility, which she likens to a disease.
Also, unlike traditional adoption or surrogacy, parents adopting embryos
don't have to worry about birth parents changing their minds afterward, or
about how the birth mother is taking care of herself and the baby she is
carrying that one day will be theirs.
It's also considerably less expensive at less than $10,000 after
factoring in all the costs, including having the embryos shipped by Federal
Express. In contrast, IVF can cost up to $100,000 for two children, and
fewer insurance companies are willing to cover the procedure than 10 years
But embryo adoption is not a practical solution, says Arthur L.
Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics and director of the
Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Caplan agrees embryo adoption is a good theoretical solution for what
to do with frozen embryos. The idea has become ideological because the
agency is "deceiving people" in the attempt to define them as alive by
making it seem like all frozen embryos can one day be children, he says.
That way, no embryos could be used for research. Even if there were enough
families who want to adopt all the embryos now frozen, "They must understand
not all the embryos turn into babies," Caplan says. "Organizations like
Snowflakes are saying the embryos are morally equivalent. I believe, and the
data shows, that they are not biologically equivalent."
With the lack of clear guidelines about when life begins and what to
do with the 100,000 to 400,000 embryos frozen in U.S. fertility clinics,
their moral status has become a political issue.
As a result, embryo adoption has gotten attention from some Republican
lawmakers on Capitol Hill because it adheres to a "culture of life," as
President Bush has called it.
Since 2002, Congress has allocated $2 million to raise public
awareness of embryo adoption. And, although the president did not mention it
by name, on Aug. 9, 2001, when he announced he was limiting federal funding
to embryos created before that day, he said, "Like a snowflake, each of
these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual
In September, the Vests and other Snowflake families assembled on
Capitol Hill and at the White House to call attention to the option of
Angela Woodall is a freelance Washington, D.C. journalist She can be
reached at awwoodall@com
Courtney Atnip, whose son Carter was adopted as an embryo through
Snowflakes, said they had not expected such a warm welcome and offers of
The California resident says now they have to tackle Proposition 71, a
$3 billion bond California voters approved Nov. 2 that funds a stem cell
research center, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, an
effort supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With that move and a House attempt (H.R. 4682) to repeal the Bush
administration policy on embryonic stem cell research, the controversy over
when life begins is not likely to let up soon. Embryo adoption supporters go
to great lengths for publicity because they want people to think twice when
stem cell supporters say embryos used for research would otherwise be
In reality, what to do with them is not quite so clear, at least
according to a Politics and the Life Sciences study Caplan co-authored. Of
the more than 200 IVF clinics surveyed, most create extra embryos during IVF
However, achieving consensus about what to do with excess embryos is
"seemingly impossible," because the spectrum of beliefs Americans have about
whether they are an actual human being or merely a cluster of cells, the
authors say. Most clinics were willing to keep the embryos indefinitely or
destroy them, but relied on the couple's consent in either case. A tiny
fraction of the clinics hold a ceremony and pray for the embryos before
disposing of them.
Cara sees better chances of getting support for embryo adoption with
Bush's reelection because he "believes in life-affirming programs." The
issue came up in the second presidential debate with Sen. John Kerry, who
favored funding embryonic stem cell research.
Bush did not say he opposed the research, but replied he had balanced
science and ethics by giving funding for research on stem cells existing
before August 2001. "To destroy life to save life is one of the real ethical
dilemmas that we face," he said.
Jonah was in Washington, D.C., with other Snowflake babies in
September. It was a long way from the day he was a four-celled embryo
suspended in an icy home. It had been a long journey for Cara Vest, too.
Four years ago when she and Gregg were desperate for their own child,
Susanne and Bob Gray were trying to figure out what to do with 23 embryos
left over from the IVF Susanne had undergone while trying to get pregnant.
They were told 23 embryos could produce four to six children. "I was
changing my 2-year-old's diapers while taking my 4-year-old to school,"
Susanne says. She knew the four children she already had was the limit.
Susanne found Snowflakes while trying to arrange for an adoption of
her frozen offspring. The agency put the couples in touch. Two years later
Jonah was born.
Sitting in her dining room in Virginia on a November afternoon Cara
says her goal is to be a crusader for frozen embryos. With the
responsibility she has assumed comes pressure. When she miscarried the first
baby and it was diagnosed with Down syndrome, Cara worried it would cast the
Snowflakes program in a bad light.
Then there is also the pressure of being an adoptive parent, of
wanting to do what is best for her child. It does not creep into her
parenting to make her more indulgent of a child who is in many ways a
technological and personal miracle, she says, but she hopes the Grays would
approve of her parenting decisions.
For Cara, a lot rests on birthing another healthy baby. "The goal of
getting this baby here safely rests on my shoulders."
In the meantime, Cara is mulling over names for the baby. It looks
like a girl in the sonogram images. Jonah and his sister are not the only
Snowflake babies. But the next four years of the Bush administration may
determine how many there will be in the future.
It's all about having "one of your own" and experiencing pregnancy and
childbirth. Yuk! I found it fascinating that as a little girl the
Snowflake moo dreamed of wearing maternity clothes. That's plain weird.
I am quite sure that I never had any desire what-so-ever to experience
pregnancy or childbirth.
I'm relieved to hear that, Raymond. Neither have I!
And I am quite sure that some have never had any desire to experience
pregnancy, childbirth, OR relinquishment. Does that make them all wrong?
No, of course not By why get involved with something that will live in
misery and desire and the die?