09 Dec 2020 Baby Born from 27-Year-Old Donated Embryo Offers Another Path to Parenthood
Just in time for a hopeful New Year, the airwaves are full of the story of the beautiful baby girl born in October from an embryo created and frozen a record-setting 27 years ago.
But, while embryo donation offers intended parents another option for disposition of unused embryos as well as a lower-cost cost path to parenthood for some infertile individuals, the happy ending made possible through this miracle of assisted reproductive technology does not present the whole picture: The agency that matched the frozen embryo with her Tennessee parents discriminates against unmarried and LGBTQ individuals. And the issue of embryo “adoption” itself has become another weapon in the religious right-wing attack on reproductive rights, including a woman’s right to choose.
Assisted Reproduction Technology Miracle
The baby, born to married couple Tina and Ben Gibson of Tennessee, “is believed to have set a new record for the longest-frozen embryo to have resulted in a birth, breaking a record set by her older sister, Emma,” according to a BBC report.
We wrote about big sister Emma when she was born three years ago:
The baby girl in this story was born November 25, 2017, to a young East Tennessee couple. The couple, who had wanted a baby but had been unable to conceive, were matched with a donated embryo provided by the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), a non-profit organization that is the largest U.S. provider of embryo donation and embryo adoption services. The couple went through more than 500 donor profiles before selecting one that, unbeknownst to them, had been frozen since October 14, 1992—just one-and-a-half years after mom Tina Gibson was born. Baby Emma became the longest known frozen human embryo to result in a successful birth.
In our January 2018 article about the baby born from a then-record-setting 24-year-old embryo, we celebrated, uncritically, both the promise of a more affordable solution for infertile couples for whom the high cost of IVF is prohibitive and a potential partial solution to the growing problem of unused, abandoned embryos in fertility clinics and cryopreservation facilities all over the U.S.
Religious Roots of Embryo Donor Programs
But, as The New York Times reported last year, many of the organizations that have sprung up in recent years to facilitate the donation of unused embryos are rooted in religious ideology that would deny the rights of single, unmarried or LGBTQ people to become parents and that use their belief in the “personhood” of unborn embryos as a basis to oppose abortion and other reproductive rights.
The agency that twice arranged for the Gibsons’ successful embryo donation, is one such example. The Knoxville, Tennessee-based National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), said to be largest embryo donation clinic in the United States, restricts the potential parents it serves to couples, who “must be a genetic male and a genetic female married for a minimum of 3 years,” according to guidelines published on its website.
The President and Medical Director of NEDC is Dr. Jeffrey Keenan, who also is founder and Co-director of the Southeastern Center for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine.
According to an article on the clinic’s website, which identifies NEDC as its “non-profit partner,” NEDC was founded in 2003 “as a direct result of a vision cast by Christian Medical & Dental Associations CEO Dr. David Stevens, who saw the need for a high-quality, scientifically and ethically sound way to honor the dignity of the human embryo.” The article continues:
“Since then, the faith-based organization has gained distinction as a leading comprehensive non-profit embryo adoption program whose purpose is to protect the lives and dignity of frozen embryos that would not be used by their genetic parents and to help other couples build the families they have longed for via donated embryos.”
Faith-Based Embryo Donation Programs Reap Federal Dollars
NEDC is one of several agencies that have received funding from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant program, the Embryo Awareness Adoption Program, established in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration.
Since its inception 18 years ago, the program, which provides about $1 million in funding annually, has made grants to only two non-faith-based agencies, Boston IVF in 2011 and Resolve: The National Infertility Association from 2007 to 2009, according to The New York Times report.
All other agencies that have received funding under the taxpayer-funded program since 2002 have been either Christian or anti-abortion organizations, even though secular embryo-donation programs do exist. Dr. Craig Sweet, who runs the non-faith-based Embryo Donation International, told the Times he had applied for the federal grants several times and had never received one.
Embryo Donors May Shun Non-Christian or LGBTQ Parents
Often intended parents who donate unused embryos do so because of their religious beliefs and want to ensure their embryos go to parents who mirror their values. Agencies like NEDC and Snowflakes Embryo Adoption in Loveland, Colorado, whose parent agency received a federal grant in 2017, offer that assurance.
Kimberly Tyson, marketing and program director at Snowflakes Embryo Adoption, told the Times the donors she works with “skewed heavily Christian.” Under the agency’s “adoption” model, donors are able to direct who receives their embryos. “So when Ms. Tyson does get a client who identifies as atheist or L.G.B.T., she usually suggests other embryo transfer programs that aren’t religiously affiliated,” the Times reports.
Embryo “Adoption” as Argument for Personhood Laws
The prevalence of embryo donation agencies that discriminate against non-Christian, single or LGBTQ intended parents is a potentially troubling aspect of the embryo-donor movement.
Equally troubling is the way many of the donor agencies frame the embryo donation process not as a solution for individuals suffering from infertility or for LGBTQ or single people who want to be parents, but as an adoption of an abandoned child.
The question of when human life begins is at the heart of the abortion controversy in the United States. Over time, anti-choice activists have shifted their energies from picketing clinics and challenging abortion laws directly to an effort to use courts and conservative state legislatures to establish the legal personhood of unborn embryos.
Historically in family law cases such as divorce, any existing unused embryos are treated by the courts as community property of the couple. Ideally, an agreement was signed by all parties when the embryos were created that governs how the embryos will be disposed in the event of death, divorce or separation.
In 2016, we wrote about the case of actress Sophia Vergara, whose ex-fiancé sued in a Louisiana court in an attempt to gain custody of the couple’s unused, frozen embryos with the intention of using a surrogate to give birth. In 2018, we covered a new Arizona law that would award custody of any embryos in a divorce case to the party that promises to allow the embryos to be born—regardless of the wishes of the other parent.
The success of these efforts to treat embryos as legal persons would devastate the practice of assisted reproduction and for reproductive rights in general.
According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), of 367 U.S. member clinics reporting, 74,590 babies were born as a result of 279,288 IVF cycles in 2018, the most recent annual data available—roughly a 26 percent success rate.
That means that 74 percent of the embryos used in IVF procedures in the U.S. were not used or did not result in a live birth. Likewise, in natural human conception, we know that a large number of embryos don’t attach or are not viable, often lost before a woman is even aware of the pregnancy.
Often, when intended parents undergo IVF, they end up with multiple viable embryos. In the early days of IVF technology, best practice was to implant multiple embryos, which maximized the chances of conception but often resulted in multiple births or in the need for selective reduction.
However, as the technology advanced and outcomes improved, best practice evolved to implantation of a single embryo per cycle—improving conditions for babies and birth mothers alike.
Even with these technological advances, many more embryos typically are produced during the IVF process than are used. Intended parents often arrange for their frozen embryos to be stored in the event they want to add to their family in the future. Once their families are complete, intended parents must make the decision of what to do with their unused embryos—a decision that can be emotionally difficult for some or even create conflict between parents.
One unintended consequence, as we wrote about earlier, is the growing numbers of embryos abandoned and unclaimed by their owners, creating an unsustainable dilemma for IVF clinics and cryopreservation facilities across the United States. As we described, one reason intended parents sometimes “abandon” their stored embryos, leaving storage fees unpaid, is their reluctance to make what can be the emotionally tough decision to discard them. More embryo donation programs would offer individuals more options, both for the intended parents who created the embryos and for infertile individuals for whom the high cost of IVF can be prohibitive.
Embryo Donation Offers Lower-Cost Family-Building Option
As was the case with this Tennessee family, embryo donation programs can be a solution for infertile, single or LGBTQ intended parents who otherwise might not be able to afford the cost of IVF or even adoption. As The New York Times reported:
Transferring donated embryos is less expensive than almost any alternative to natural pregnancy. Adoption can cost tens of thousands of dollars. A single round of I.V.F. — which many insurance carriers do not cover — can run between $12,000 and $17,000. Embryo donation costs an average of $8,000.
Embryo donation is a family-building tool and an opportunity for intended parents that we should celebrate. But, particularly during these divided times, with a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court all too willing to consider challenges to reproductive rights it’s important to celebrate it for the right reasons. We should not allow the opportunity for embryo donation to become another weapon in the culture wars or in the ongoing attempt to strip women of the right to control their own bodies.
Here at IFLG, we do celebrate the news of a baby born using an embryo created and frozen 27 years ago, just as we celebrate all the babies born to our clients who worked, planned, sacrificed and dreamed, sometimes for years, in order to become parents through assisted reproductive technology. We are thrilled at the advances in technology and the resulting improved opportunities for intended parents to create families of their own.