Sperm-pierced human ova have yet to yield baby chicks or puppies. If allowed to grow, such cells produce boys and girls. That’s why the vocabulary surrounding stem-cell research, human cloning, and other fertility issues is so eerie. Discussions of “surplus embryos” that will be “discarded anyway” are cruelly dismissive of Microscopic-Americans who — if their potential body parts are not “harvested” — will become citizens sooner than Thanksgiving turns to Labor Day.
While this truth escapes so many people these days, it propels JoAnn Davidson, program director of the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program. From modest quarters in this Orange County community, she and two colleagues help couples adopt frozen embryos that often would be killed in the name of science or simply treated as so much medical waste. The path she has built to lead these souls on ice into loving families deserves reproduction from coast to coast.
“Our end objective is to work ourselves out of our jobs,” says the 36-year-old Texas A & M graduate. “Every embryo would be adopted and no new ‘extra’ embryos would be created.”
An estimated 188,000 embryos are suspended in liquid nitrogen canisters around America. Some fertility clinics help genetic parents donate their unused embryos to others who are trying to become pregnant. However, the process is usually anonymous with donors and recipients knowing little, if anything, about each other.
The Snowflakes program treats embryo adoptions just like open adoptions of children who scream and scamper. Those who relinquish their embryos can choose potential adoptive parents who have passed a rigorous “homestudy” process that Davidson calls “80 percent education and 20 percent screening.” This includes counseling with social workers on parental responsibilities as well as background checks for credit problems or evidence of criminality or child abuse. Snowflakes even submits prospective parents’ fingerprints for FBI clearance.
Genetic parents who work with Snowflakes, a project of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, tend to want their embryos to be raised in religious homes. However, Davidson says, “We wouldn’t stand in the way,” if a participating couple wished to donate to an atheist, single mother. “We don’t define the criteria. It’s up to the genetic parents. But the nature of our name narrows the kind of people who come to us.”
Genetic donors and adoptive parents remain available to each other through the program (in case of medical emergencies). They also may stay in limited contact through Snowflakes’ offices or can phone, e-mail or visit directly.
“They send us pictures of their kids, and we send them pictures of ours,” says Lucinda Borden of the genetic parents whose embryos she adopted. She and her husband, John, now have 11-month-old boys named Mark and Luke after trying to get pregnant for six years. “It changed my life completely because I have twin sons,” says the Fontana, California resident. “The other option for them, other than being adopted, was to be destroyed. Knowing that there are tens of thousands like them in freezers waiting for their fates to be decided breaks a mother’s heart.”
After they had twins through implantation and a subsequent child naturally, Atlanta’s Susanne and Bob Gray offered for adoption 23 of the 27 embryos they and their doctor created.
“It’s easy to attach a face to an embryo when you can see the faces of its brothers and sisters that came from the same cluster of embryos,” Susanne Gray says. She adds that she and her husband “were actually shocked” when her doctor aspirated 33 eggs from her ovaries and fertilized all of them, thus producing more embryos than she ever would raise as children.
Davidson urges prospective parents to tell their doctors to create only as many embryos as they would bring home as newborns. Overly aggressive fertility techniques are largely responsible for the crowded purgatory in which so many frozen embryos languish.
Snowflakes is doing its part to ease this crowding. To date, it has matched 36 genetic families with 27 adopting couples. Of the 186 embryos the program has had thawed, 94 were viable for uterine implantation. Of these, eight babies have been born, and seven more are on the way.
JoAnn Davidson’s office is festooned with snowflakes. Paper ones, that resemble doilies, cover her walls. Others — crafted from Styrofoam, wicker and pewter — dangle on strings from her suspended ceiling. They symbolize those she aims to help, each frozen, fragile and uniquely individual.