The Next Frontier of the Stem Cell Debate

"Snowflake" babies, embryo "adoption," and being pre-born again

On an afternoon in 1997, Ron Stoddart, father of the embryo adoption movement, was driving in Orange County, California, when he heard a radio show discussing the impending destruction of 3,000 surplus frozen embryos in Great Britain. The genetic parents had either given their permission for them to be discarded or were no longer reachable. The story troubled Stoddart. He remembers thinking, "Embryos—well, those are already pre-born children."

At the time, the 66-year-old adoptive father of four was working as a pro-life advocate and adoption attorney, and was executive director of a small adoption charity in Southern California, which today is called the Nightlight Christian Adoption Agency. He'd been watching the in vitro fertilization industry and was concerned about the growing number of surplus embryos in cryopreservation. Experts estimate that there are currently about 400,000 frozen embryos in cold storage.

Not long after Stoddart heard the radio show, a couple came to his office seeking help with an international adoption. Marlene and John Strege had been going through in vitro fertilization treatments, but all had failed. Out of curiosity, Stoddart asked them if they'd heard about the British embryos. They had. In fact, they had recently asked their fertility doctor if they might be able to acquire someone else's unwanted embryos through donation. Though relatively few couples ever chose it, the option had been quietly available for nearly 20 years.

Ron Stoddart remembers thinking, “Embryos—well, those are already 
pre-born children.”
Courtesy Ron Stoddart
Ron Stoddart remembers thinking, “Embryos—well, those are already pre-born children.”

Stoddart thought the idea was brilliant. Why not do it?

Because, the couple told him, the clinic had refused to release information about the donors. And they didn't want to use a donated embryo without someday being able to tell their child about his or her genetic parents; if they were going to do it, they wanted an open embryo "adoption."

So Stoddart started calling fertility clinics: Did they know of any donors who would be interested in an open exchange with the Streges? Time and again, the answer came back: No. "We really have very few people who would be interested in this," they told him.

But Stoddart didn't believe them. He suspected some couples would be eager to donate their embryos if they had more control over who would be getting them.

When Stoddart founded the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program, it became the country's first agency to broker embryo donations and apply adoption terminology and contracts to the transfer. The program offers a range of services traditionally reserved for the adoption of actual children, including background checks, visits to the prospective family's house by social workers, and adoption counseling.

On New Year's Eve 1998—in the same year that researchers at the University of Wisconsin would create the first human embryonic stem cell line—Hannah Strege, the world's first "snowflake baby," was born in Fallbrook, California. Experts estimate that 3,000 children have since been born through similar programs nationwide.

In July 2001, JoAnn Eiman, then-director of the Snowflakes program, traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify in Congress against embryonic stem cell research. Joining her were snowflake parents John and Lucinda Borden. In a moment later recounted in The New York Times, John Borden hefted his nine-month-old twin sons onto his shoulders and asked the panel of stunned Representatives: "Which one of my children would you take? Which one would you kill?"

But no one seemed to notice the more telling exchange between Eiman and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a feminist and Democrat from New York. Maloney asked Eiman if she was in favor of actually forcing people to place their excess embryos up for adoption. At the time, a stunned Eiman said no. But later, in California, after the Congressional office sent her a transcript of her testimony and asked her to make appropriate corrections, Eiman changed her mind.

"We force people to put their kids into foster care if they're not good parents," she says. "If parents aren't parenting their children, aren't we responsible for making sure they do? Do we leave them frozen forever?"

One month after Eiman's testimony, in a prime-time TV address, President Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to those stem cell lines harvested from embryos that had already been destroyed. In anticipation of his impending decision, Stoddart had mailed an information packet about embryo adoption to the President, urging him to prevent the killing of pre-born children.

He assumes some of the materials reached the White House because, during his speech, the President used some of the organization's rhetoric: "Like a snowflake," he said, "each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being."

Eiman was watching that night. "He put us on the map," she says. The following year, Bush cleared the way for a $1 million Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grant for embryo adoption and donation awareness campaigns. Nearly $11 million in federal funding has been spent in the promotion of awareness since 2002.

In May 2008, the country's first conference on embryo donation and adoption, funded by an HHS grant, was held in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. In the peach-and-plush conference room of the Marriot Crystal Gateway Hotel, embryo adoption heavyweights like Ron Stoddart and Sam Casey mingled with adoptive parents and donors. A smattering of medical professionals and property attorneys were there, too. Panel discussions like "Bringing Embryo Donation and Adoption to the Mainstream" presented tips for promoting embryo adoption to the public.

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