Parents who have had children through in vitro fertilization (IVF) are sometimes left with the dilemma of what to do with embryos that were not implanted. In Canada, one Christian agency offers an option that can help parents with this decision. With the birth of 10 babies through their embryo donation program, and several other families expecting, they have helped many couples achieve the dream of parenthood.
Beginnings, a Christian family services agency supported by the Christian Reformed Church, was the first agency in Canada to start a program for open embryo donation and adoption and is still the only national agency in Canada that offers this unique way to build a family. The program was established in 2010 and is modeled after existing programs in the United States.
“It offers an opportunity, a wonderful way to address a dilemma of what to do with remaining embryos,” explained Kerry Vandergrift, Beginnings’ executive director. Beginnings was founded in 1985, a sister agency to Bethany Christian Services in the U.S. The agency facilitates open infant adoptions and offers other services such as counseling for pregnant mothers and education courses including BabySMARTS and adoption education programs.
More than 30 donor families have now participated in the embryo donation program, having found Beginnings while seeking out a service to help them decide whether donation is a good solution for them. Aside from the program’s openness, what sets Beginnings apart from fertility clinics is that instead of following a medical model where the prospective parent is at the center, Beginnings is primarily interested in finding the best fit for the child. Additionally, embryo donors are directly involved in the selection of the recipient family.
As with infant adoption, the openness in each embryo adoption can vary, from the child simply knowing their genetic roots to having a real relationship through regular contact. Each relationship is unique as it is negotiated and mutually agreed upon by the involved donor and recipient families.
“When keeping the future of the children in mind, openness is the most beneficial for the child,” said Mary Howlett-Nero, program director at Beginnings. “The child needs to be comfortable in the world in which they exist.”
“Everything we do begins with the child,” said Vandergrift. “We are very child-focused and build families around that child.” Both donor and recipient families undergo significant assessment and counseling to ensure a successful match. The donor does not receive any compensation, and they don’t pay any of the incurred professional and legal fees. For the recipient family, the cost ranges from $10,000-$15,000 (CDN), an affordable adoption relative to traditional models of adoption.
“We do all the facilitation for the process, coordinating everything one step at a time,” said Howlett-Nero.
One of Beginnings’ founding members is Rev. Arie Van Eek, a member of Bethel CRC in Waterdown, Ont. He was instrumental in connecting with theologians and other focus groups to prayerfully consider and establish this program as a part of Beginnings’ services.
When the program started, it was met with some hostility. “The subject can be very controversial,” explained Van Eek. “But when you are thinking first of the child, as this is what an embryo is, and in being mindful of the best interest of the child, starting this program just made sense.”
There isn’t a regulated accounting of stored embryos. Beginnings estimates that approximately 50,000 frozen embryos are currently stored at clinics in Canada. Worldwide, the number may be more than 1 million.