The Next Frontier of the Stem Cell Debate

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

E. Christian Brugger, a Harvard- and Oxford-educated theologian and ethicist, who led a panel entitled "Thorny Ethical Issues," recalled later that "everyone present agreed that something needed to be done" about the frozen embryos stranded in "concentration cans," an expression first coined by Dr. Jérôme Lejeune, the renowned French geneticist and Roman Catholic who discovered the cause of Down syndrome.

Anita Catlin, perinatal ethicist, author, and professor of nursing at Sonoma State University, was also at the conference, where she found herself among a scant few skeptics. "There was no debate," she recalls. "The thought there was, 'These are children living in little straws,' " a reference to the tube in which cryogenically frozen embryos are kept.

Catlin, who views the embryo as a "substance worthy of respect," found the religious tenor of the federally funded conference and its emphasis on the personhood of the embryo disturbing. "These people were saying to use embryos for research would be a 'holocaust.' "

Jeffrey Marini
The next minority group: Frozen bundles of cells in “concentration cans”?
The next minority group: Frozen bundles of cells in “concentration cans”?

Thomas C. Atwood, then-president of the National Council for Adoption, called for the use of the neutral term "embryo placement" as an alternative to adoption. Those who insisted on calling the practice "adoption," he warned, "may lose some potential allies who might support the practice if its name was less loaded."

He also voiced concern about the fates of "born children" awaiting adoption. "Is it appropriate to encourage prospective adoptive parents to receive embryo placements when there are countless millions of born children of all ages around the world in need of adoption?" he asked. "Does embryo placement compete for prospective parents with the adoption of children in foster care?"

Snowflakes' founder, Ron Stoddart, was listening to Atwood from the wings: "The topic of his talk was supposed to be lessons learned from adoption that could be applied to embryo donation or adoption, and he spent half of his talk trying to come up with a set of terms that would be acceptable to everyone. I thought it was a waste of time."

The first time that Lauren's fertility specialist suggested embryo adoption, she wasn't interested. Her doctors had only recently confirmed her worst fears. "They'd managed to fertilize 12 eggs, but they all died in the lab dish," she recalls. "They weren't sure why." Emotionally wrought from the news and from her recent round of fertility meds, Lauren and her husband, who is a reserve Army officer, walked away from assisted reproduction, they thought, for good.

They contacted Bethany Christian Services and began filling out paperwork for a domestic adoption. Almost right away, a birth mother picked them. One day in May 2006, they received a call to come to the hospital. Whatever joy they were feeling was quickly tempered by the anguish of the birth mother.

For two days after the baby was born, they sat with the birth mother in her hospital room. "It was a tough situation," recalls Lauren. "I stayed with her. I didn't just walk in and take her baby. She was very strong. She tried to do as little nurturing as possible, but, of course, she still held the baby."

At the end of the second day, Lauren and her husband left the room and went downstairs to wait, while a counselor met with the birth mother and reiterated to her that she had the right to change her mind.

"We were nervous about it," Lauren remembers. "We went in and said our goodbyes. There was a lot of buildup—you can imagine. When we were finally leaving, and she was saying goodbye, she was crying, I was crying, everyone was crying. It was the happiest day of my life, but it was also very upsetting."

When their daughter, Maliha, was a year and a half old, Lauren and her husband started talking about adopting again, and again, their fertility specialist asked them if they'd consider frozen embryos. They had already gone through the background checks and social worker visit that Bethany requires for all its adoptions, so they just needed to pick a donor and hope that donor approved them. So Lauren did some research. Many couples doing embryo adoption for the first time now turn to online communities like the Forum Circle's "Snowbabies" and Bethany's embryo adoption discussion board. Adoptive parents share tips and talk about their "embies," and others seek advice about their "FETs," or frozen embryo transfers. Unlike in vitro fertilization, Lauren didn't have to go back on fertility meds, drive to the clinic every few days, check the number of eggs she had ovulated, wait for the doctor to scan them for quality, and have them retrieved for fertilization in the Petri dish. This time, all she had to do was show up and have the embryos transferred to her uterus.

That was all she needed to hear. "Being able to eliminate that first part was," she pauses for emphasis, "huge." It also allowed her the opportunity to experience pregnancy and bond with her babies before their birth. And—perhaps even more critical—it eliminated the risk of the birth mother changing her mind. Because, says Lauren, "I was going to be the birth mother."

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