By Katy Faust
Baby Molly was created in a petri dish in 1992, and frozen on October 14 that same year. 27 years later, she was transferred into the womb of Tina Gibson and born on October 26, 2020. Tina’s body had also been the warm receptacle for baby Molly‘s frozen sister Emma, just two years before. Both Molly and Emma were former members of the nearly 1,000,000 babies on ice in this country. They were, thankfully, given a chance at life via embryo adoption.
Molly and Emma are scientific wonders. Not just because they have broken the record for the longest-frozen-then-successfully-implanted embryos, but also the mere fact that they were born at all – only 7.5% of children created in a lab will be born alive. The other 92.5% will be deemed non-viable, or the wrong sex and “discarded,” won’t survive the thaw, will die after being transferred to the mother’s womb or will be frozen indefinitely.
The little lives currently frozen are the by-products of in vitro fertilization (IVF), and often leftovers after the successful implantation of their siblings, or who remain in suspended animation while parents save up for another round of implantation. Others are among the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos relinquished or abandoned by their biological parents. Addressing what is to be done with these “surplus embryos” is one of the greatest ethical dilemmas of artificial reproduction, and perhaps for all of humanity.
Complexities of reproductive technologies
While we celebrate these girls’ escape from the freezer and the parents who gave them both a womb and a home, as clear-eyed children’s rights advocates we must also recognize the complexities that “advancements” in reproductive technologies present.
Many adults approach the question of sperm/egg donation, surrogacy and now embryo adoption from the perspective of adults struggling with infertility- a heartbreak for any couple who is longing for a child. It’s good and right to empathize with the devastation of an endometriosis diagnosis or mourn for the man who cannot have children post-cancer treatment. We yearn for them to be the parents they long to be – especially in a world where fewer and fewer people recognize marriage and children as a positive good to which we should aspire. However, when the “treatment” for infertility involves a third-party, children pay the price.
Even traditional adoption, an institution that serves kids in need, involves loss for children. Adoption can be a redemptive means of family building: a child without a home is blessed with parents, a woman in desperate circumstances can find relief, a couple praying for a family welcomes a baby into their arms. We now know, however, that a child experiences trauma when separated from her birth mother, even though she is deeply wanted and lovingly raised by adoptive parents. That trauma can result in a lifetime of challenges. Adoptees often experience a profound sense of rejection, grief, guilt, shame, and identity issues when raised apart from their genetic parents. These adoptees aren’t “bad,” and their parents haven’t done anything “wrong.” This is simply the natural result of the profound loss that initiates every adoption- the loss of a child’s first family. Adoption is a just society’s best solution to remedy that loss.
Some couples reason that third-party reproduction is no different than adoption. It might even be better because the child will not suffer the trauma of losing her mother at birth. Thus, many couples who struggle with infertility seek a sperm or egg donor in their effort to become parents. Unfortunately, the little data we have on sperm donation reveals that children conceived via a third party often fare worse than adoptees when it comes to familial trust, belonging, stability, identity struggles, and substance abuse. It turns out that choosing to separate a child from their biological parent(s) at conception is far from redemptive. Rather, it burdens children in ways to which even traditional adoptees can’t relate.
Psychology Today addressed the challenges that donor-conceived children face in a November 2013 article. In addition to frustration over the inability to identify “real” parents, these children “express unease over their own origins. Some grapple with conception arising not from love but financial incentives—and for them, the word donor particularly rankles. Others worry they may harbor a hidden medical condition…Some express deep anxiety about unwittingly falling in love with a half-sibling.”
So, we see that both adoption and donor-conception involve loss for children. Both groups can struggle long-term, and neither group fares as well as children raised by their own biological parents. Yet adoption supports children’s rights because adults are seeking to remedy the loss of a child’s parents while donor-conception violates children’s rights because it inflicts the loss of a child’s parent(s). And that distinction has a significant impact on the child as they grow.
“Alternatives” to Embryo Adoption
Before we examine the pros and cons of embryo adoption, we must begin by addressing what the alternatives are for these “surplus” embryos.
When it comes to the dilemma of unwanted freezer-bound babies, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) offers three options:
- Thaw and Discard
- Donate to Research
- Embryo Donation/Adoption
The ASRM doesn’t list the option that honors the rights of children- both their right to life and their right to their mother and father – a right recognized and upheld in international human rights treaties. That option is – the mother and father who created these babies transfer them into their own mother’s womb. When considering children’s rights, adults must do hard things so the rights of children are protected.
The first two ASRM options are non-starters for those who believe in the rights of children; we don’t thaw and discard any human no matter their age, stage, or viability, and we don’t offer up someone else’s body for scientific experimentation. But what about those real, but extremely rare, cases where the biological mother cannot carry the child, perhaps because she has had a hysterectomy or has passed away?
That leaves embryo adoption/donation. I’ve written about the pros and cons of embryo adoption at length in my upcoming book, but here is the spark notes version. Warning: some of the thoughts and experiences of those created through donor conception may be hard to process, but if we hope to address the ethical consequences of ART, we must acknowledge the lived experience of those most directly affected – the children.
Benefits and Challenges of Embryo Adoption
We can now return to the question of embryo adoption. Is it a redemptive option like traditional adoption? Or is it more like sperm and egg donation? As we shall see, embryo adoption is both like and unlike adoption and sperm/egg donation.
The upside of embryo adoption
- Children who grow up without their biological parents experience loss. But unlike children born via traditional sperm and egg donation, embryo adoptive parents didn’t create their child’s parental loss. Rather, many are seeking to mend it. Thus, the child will more likely be able to grieve and process their familial loss as they grow. This distinct difference – that the parents raising the child are not the adults responsible for the parental wound but are motivated to heal it – likely explains why adoptees tend to fare better than children created through sperm and egg donation in several critical outcomes.
- Children of traditional adoption lose a relationship with their biological parents and their birth mother, inflicting what many adoptees term a “primal wound.” In contrast, embryo adopted children enjoy a continuous relationship with their birth mother which will likely advantage them when it comes to attachment and trust. That close bond with her mother allowed Hannah Sterge, the first child born via Embryo Adoption 21 years ago, the time to understand and process her unique birth story. “I don’t think it was until I got older that I started to identify more with the general adoptive world because… my beginning is just different from everybody else… As I got older I realised, ‘Oh I’m adopted and I have a biological family out there’ cause that never crossed my mind because my mom is both my birth mom and my adoptive mom, which not many people can say. I think it’s gonna take a lifetime to fully understand it and I’m still trying to understand and process it as I explain it to people.”
The challenges of embryo adoption
- Embryo adopted children will struggle with the same identity questions and “genealogical bewilderment” that many adoptees and donor-conceived children face. The need to know one’s biological parents is the very reason why 95% of adoptions today are “open,” with some level of contact with a child’s birth family. Kids long to know from whom they came.
- Many will have to wrestle through the fact that they have full genetic siblings being raised by their own biological parents. When asked what kind of burden this might place on the children as they grow Gregory Loy, conceived of a sperm donor notes, “These are children growing up with no tie to their genetic relatives, and are supposed to just sit down and be ok with it because “someone” wanted them. Along with that statement, they have to stomach the notion that someone else, their real parents, didn’t want them.”
- Emma and Molly may likely struggle to process the strange fact that had they been born naturally, they could have been their birthmother’s BFF, not her daughter. These science fiction-like scenarios concern Elizabeth Howard, also born via sperm-donor. “If they have been kept frozen for many years, their genetic parents may be elderly or deceased by the time they are old enough to question their origins… What about their frozen brothers and sisters, potentially dozens of them, who weren’t so lucky? What about their living siblings, the ones who weren’t frozen? They might be many years older…”
- Embryo adoption does nothing to curb the practice of creating dozens of “surplus embryos” even though very few couples would actually raise dozens of children. One donor-conceived man shared with me, “The most heinous issue with embryo-donation is that it encourages fertility establishments to haphazardly create more during fertility treatments where they wouldn’t otherwise potentially have been so flippant.”
So what’s a couple to do?
Childlessness is a heartrending experience, and if a couple is part of a culture that values and encourages family formation, infertility is especially painful. For many, the inability to conceive and bear children becomes a test of faith, and some question their worthiness to have a child – is this some kind of punishment from God? Despite, however, the very real pain experienced by those who suffer from infertility, and the compassion we feel for them, it is incumbent upon us to also consider the very real challenges faced by many children created via third-party reproduction. The path to parenthood should not simply transfer an adult’s desire for a child into a child’s desire for her missing biological parent.
These unintended and negative consequences of artificial reproductive therapies are at the heart of faith communities discouraging the use of third-party fertility methods and caution against the creation of unused and unwanted embryos. The Catholic Church views all IVF, including the use of third-party gametes, as immoral and objects to the destruction of life that frequently occurs through in vitro fertilization. Christ’s admonishment to protect the “least of these” makes the use of sperm and egg donation a non-starter for evangelicals who recognize that third-party reproduction forces a child to sacrifice for them, rather than the adult sacrificing for the child. Muslims, believe that “no third party should intrude upon the marital functions of sex and procreation. Surrogacy is not accepted in Islam.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives the following counsel: “The pattern of a husband and wife providing bodies for God’s spirit children is divinely appointed…The Church discourages artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization using sperm from anyone but the husband or an egg from anyone but the wife. However, this is a personal matter that is ultimately left to the judgment and prayerful consideration of a lawfully married man and woman.” Diverse faiths are united in the belief that human procreation is of Godly origin and therefore to be treated with the greatest of care and reverence – even awe. Likewise, the sacred nature of life and the divinely designed link between children and the mother and father that create them should give any couple pause if use of a third-party gamete is suggested as a remedy for infertility.
When the question is life or death, the correct answer is always, life! Emma and Molly’s lives are worthy of celebration, and their adoptive parents deserve our support and gratitude. Embryo adoption is the only child-honoring option for embryos which truly have no other path for life. Yet we must still be honest about the ethical and familial costs that embryo adoption imposes on children.
As advocates for the rights of children, the birth of Emma and Molly should result in two seemingly contradictory but simultaneous responses: the redoubling of our efforts to halt the creation of surplus embryos left to languish in freezers, and the celebration of the two beautiful girls who made it out.
Katy Faust is the founder and director of the children’s rights organization Them Before Us and author of the new book “Them Before Us: Why We Need a Global Children’s Rights Movement.” She is married and the mother of four children, the youngest of whom is adopted from China. You can follow her on Twitter @Advo_Katy.