On may 24, 2005, Joel and Holly Davis from Bellevue, Nebraska, experienced what they call a “God thing.” On that day, President George W. Bush held a special news conference in Washington. Surrounded by 21 families who had experienced embryo adoption, the president said, “I have just met with 21 remarkable families. Each of them has answered the call to ensure that our society’s most vulnerable members are protected and defended at every stage of life.
“The families here today have either adopted, or [relinquished] for adoption, frozen embryos that remained after fertility treatments. Rather than discard these embryos created during in vitro fertilization, or turn them over for research that destroys them, these families have chosen a life-affirming alternative. Twenty-one children here today found a chance for life with loving parents.”
Holly watched the broadcast of that news conference on TV. Unbeknownst to her, Joel was listening to it on his radio at work. When Joel came home that evening, he told Holly what he had heard, and said, “That’s what I want to do!” Dumbstruck, Holly responded, “Me too!”
Challenged by infertility, Joel and Holly had adopted twin boys a few years earlier and were now eager to add to their family circle. When they became aware of embryo adoption, they sensed God nudging them in that direction. Holly says, “It was not an easy decision—we spent a lot of time in prayer asking if this was really what God wanted us to do.”
In the end they were led to contact the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tenn. After Joel and Holly completed the prerequisites, Bethany Christian Services helped put them in contact with Chris and Shelley Casteel from Yakima, Washington.
Chris and Shelley, after eight years on their own infertility rollercoaster, had decided to try IVF (in vitro fertilization) in pursuit of their dream of having a baby. Their physician gave Shelley medication to hyperstimulate her ovaries, and later retrieved 15 of Shelley’s eggs. Twelve were fertilized, but only four survived to become embryos. Two of those embryos were transferred to Shelley’s womb, and the other two were cryopreserved, or “frozen,” in liquid nitrogen. To the couple’s delight, Shelley became pregnant with twins—a boy and a girl.
After the birth of their twins, Chris and Shelley faced a troubling dilemma. What should they do with their two remaining frozen embryos? Chris and Shelley believed those embryos were human lives. For financial and other reasons, having more children was not an option for them. They also knew that they could not keep their embryos in frozen storage indefinitely, and they did not want to allow them to be destroyed.
Was there another option? As Shelley says, “If we couldn’t have these babies, could we help another couple and give our embryos a chance for a full life?”
The two embryos Chris and Shelley lovingly donated were transferred to Holly’s uterus. Shortly thereafter, Joel and Holly were able to make an exciting announcement to their family, friends, and church: “We’re pregnant!”
Each year in the U.S., 50,000 babies are born as the result of IVF. Currently there may be as many as 500,000 embryos in cryopreservation in the United States, and there are up to 1 million frozen embryos worldwide. While a majority of these embryos are being reserved for use by their genetic parents, it is estimated that many will not be needed by the parents who created them.
People who don’t struggle with infertility might wonder, “How could Christian couples allow themselves to be put in the position of having extra embryos? Weren’t there choices they could have made to preclude such a predicament?”
Indeed, there is a great need for wise and compassionate Christian counseling for couples who are considering IVF. Since there are significant moral implications involved, couples should prayerfully and carefully decide whether or not to use this procedure.
Dr. William G. Dodds, a reproductive endocrinologist and a member of the Christian Reformed Church, encourages couples to clearly define for their physicians how they would like to limit the number of embryos created to match the family size they feel God has called them to have. Dodds says it is a physician’s duty to honor a couple’s moral beliefs concerning embryos.
Couples with unneeded frozen embryos have four basic options:
- Allow their clinic to “thaw” their embryos or to donate their embryos for research. In both cases the embryos are destroyed. For Christians who value the sanctity of human life, the willful destruction of embryos is unacceptable. As Ron Stoddart, the founder of the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program says, “An embryo is not a potential human life—it is a human life with potential.”
- Donate embryos anonymously to a clinic for use by another couple of the clinic’s choice. This is not a good solution because the donating couple has no input in selecting the recipient couple.
- Store unneeded embryos indefinitely at the clinic. This is not a solution. Keeping embryos in frozen storage only puts off the day of decision. Contrary to popular opinion, frozen embryos do not have a “shelf life.” Babies have been born from embryos stored more than 12 years.
- Pursue embryo adoption. In order to give their precious embryos the best chance of living a full life, couples with extra embryos can donate them to an infertile couple of their choice. The “adopting” couple uses these embryos in one or more attempts to become pregnant and give birth.
A Life-Affirming Choice
Releasing tiny human lives for embryo adoption is a very difficult decision. But it is the right decision. Embryo adoption resolves a difficult problem in a God-honoring, life-affirming way.
By God’s grace, embryo adoption can be a blessing for everyone involved. For the couple who donates embryos, it is a positive, pro-life way to resolve a wrenching ethical dilemma. For the adopting couple it can be a beautiful opportunity to experience pregnancy and become parents. And for the embryos themselves, a way is provided for them to grow, enter this world, and live a full life.
Is embryo adoption a “God thing”? For the two couples described at the beginning of this article, the answer is a joyful yes! One of the tiny embryos donated by Chris and Shelley was born as Joel and Holly’s beautiful daughter, Karissa.
Embryo Adoption Services
There are a number of excellent organizations that offer embryo “adoption” services. These organizations
- gladly honor Christian values.
- provide careful, quality service.
- regard human embryos as human lives that may not be willfully destroyed.
- require a home study that includes excellent counseling and educational services to prepare couples for the role of being adoptive parents.
For more information on embryo adoption, contact one of the following organizations:
Bethany Christian Services www.embryoservices.org.
The National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) www.embryodonation.org
Snowflakes: Nightlight Christian Adoptions www.snowflakes.org
1. What are your current thoughts about infertility treatment? What are your primary concerns?
2. How should Christians approach this treatment?
3. Do you agree that releasing human lives for embryo adoption is the right decision?
4. What is the best way to discern God's will in this situation?