The Next Frontier of the Stem Cell Debate

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

Embryo adoption can also be substantially cheaper than its alternatives. Stoddart's Snowflakes and Bethany Christian Services, the two biggest brokers of embryo adoption, charge between $7,000 and $13,000. Some other agencies ask considerably less. Domestic adoptions average around $20,000, while international adoptions are often twice that much. Since potential parents have to pay up-front, it's been common for people to refinance their homes or take out loans. But with the souring of the economy, all but the wealthiest would-be parents are now scrambling to raise money. On a recent afternoon, suggestions on's financing forum ranged from old-fashioned church fund-raising potlucks to selling homemade jewelry at the online store Etsy, and posting the fundraising widget, ChipIn, to Facebook profiles. is a New York–based grant program that raises money for people who can't afford to adopt. Since its founding last year, it has given away $53,000 to eight recipients, but it won't fund embryo adoptions. Becky Fawcett—who founded with her husband, Kipp, after their own challenging experience with financing a domestic adoption—says it is primarily because embryo adoptions are so much less expensive than adopting a child.

"What adoptive parents have to pay is extreme," she says. "Think of what you have to earn in a year to have an extra after-tax $30,000 lying around your house. Let's set ethics aside—if an embryo adoption gets to $30,000, $40,000, call me."

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

Bonnie Steinbock teaches philosophy and bioethics at SUNY Albany and has written widely on frozen embryos, abortion, and stem cell research. Her students like her for her ability to translate the moral and legal issues into terms they can understand. She's also a member of the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. She views the embryo adoption campaign as an anti-abortion, anti–stem cell crusade.

"It's a backdoor way of making embryos seem like people," she says.

In fact, in late April, Ron Stoddart assisted a California man with the "ceremonial" posthumous adoption of two fetuses that his wife had previously aborted. His wife had come to view the fetuses, conceived with other men, as children, and had asked her husband to give them his name for a cemetery memorial.

It's this broad use of the word "adoption" that has Steinbock's colleague, Tipton, of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, worried. Instead of dismissing embryo adoption advocates as a fringe group, he fears the potential power of adoption language to sway public opinion against—among other things—abortion rights. "It appears to be innocuous, when, in fact, it's not," he says.

Stoddart rejects accusations that Snowflakes' is a personhood campaign and that he was attempting to undermine procreative liberty when he used the word "adoption." "The least of my thoughts was Roe v. Wade. What I was trying to do was create a process that respected the rights of the donors, the rights of the receiving parents, and, ultimately, the rights of the child. And I always have felt that it was going to be much easier for the children if they knew how they came to be—that they were adopted as an embryo, rather than that they were 'donated.' "

But Steinbock says Stoddart and his colleagues are being inconsistent. "What they want is a halfway kind of thing," she says. "If they were really serious" about embryos being pre-born children, "they'd do what the Catholic Church has done—which has been very consistent, actually—and they'd oppose every kind of assisted reproduction out there."

Though Sam Casey may not be calling for protests at fertility clinics, he is waging a more discreet operation: calling for government restrictions that would limit the number of embryos a patient can produce in the first place. He cites studies like the one published last December by Duke University, which found that patients are largely dissatisfied with their options of disposing of their embryos. Not wanting to donate them to another couple, but also uncertain about the moral implications of discarding or donating them to research, many patients are now delaying their decision by paying storage fees of as much as $750 a year. Others have simply walked away, leaving their doctors in the awkward position of having to decide what to do with them.

"People typically delay the decision, deny the decision, or run from the decision," says Casey. "But why is it such a tough decision if it's just property? It's because they really know what it is—particularly the ones who have been through in vitro fertilization and have already had children."

Not surprisingly, Casey is also advocating for restrictions on what patients can do with their embryos, not just how many they can create. "We need to ask, as a nation, whether parents have the right to give proxy consent for their child's death"—by which he means thawing and discarding them or donating them to stem cell research. "Parents should have no greater rights to terminate a living human embryo outside the womb than the rights they now have to terminate the life of any one of their other children living outside the womb."

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