While IVF treatment and donation of sperm or eggs have been done for decades, donating an embryo only became popular in the last 10 years, mostly due to conservative Christian and pro-life groups. A “snowflake baby,” a term derived from the name of an embryo adoption agency, refers to a child born from a frozen embryo that was implanted into a woman’s uterus. One of these babies was born only last month and what’s special about her is that she and her mother were conceived only a year apart, making it possibly the longest gap between conception and delivery.
Cryopreservation of embryos was first introduced in the mid-1980s by researchers Greg Fahy and William F. Rall. The frozen embryos are usually those that were donated so that the recipient could use them at a later date or they would be the embryos remaining after a successful implantation.
On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown became the first human to be born after being conceived by IVF. The treatment was developed by Robert G. Edwards who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2010 for his work along with Patrick Steptoe. After the introduction of vitrification, Lilia Kuleshova became the first scientist to successfully vitrify a woman’s egg which resulted in a live birth in 1999. Since then, there have been many advances in cryopreservation technology such as the cryoprotectants which help decrease freezing temperature and increase viscosity. This prevents the liquids in the embryo from crystalizing and, instead, keeps them in an amorphous state.
On November 25, 2017, Tina Gibson gave birth to Emma Wren following a successful implantation of a donated embryo that was frozen on October 14, 1992. Tina herself was 25-year-old when she delivered her daughter from the 24-year-old frozen embryo.
At the NEDC, Tina and her husband, Benjamin Gibson from East Tennessee, were shown pictures of their embryos at the time of transfer. Emma’s embryo was thawed by NDEC’s lab director Carol Sommerfelt on March 13, 2017, and Tina became pregnant after a frozen embryo transfer (FET) conducted by the center’s president, Dr. Jeffrey Keenan. Though there have been hundreds of successful frozen embryo transfers, Emma Wren holds the record for the longest gap between conception and live birth since the beginning of IVF. Previously, a woman from New York gave birth to a healthy boy in 2010 after she was implanted with a 20-year-old frozen embryo. Also, in 2013, 45-year-old NASA scientist Kelly Burke gave birth to her son, Liam James, who was cryopreserved for 19 years. The frozen embryo Burke chose was actually one of the donated eggs, two of which were used by another couple from Oregon in 1994 for IVF, and the rest were frozen.
As of May 2012, there are over 600,000 cryopreserved embryos in labs and fertility clinics in the US alone waiting to be used by the couple who created them or to be “adopted” by a new couple.
When someone opts for an IVF, depending on the woman’s age and other health factors, more than one embryo is created in case implantation of the first one doesn’t go as planned. But only one in 10 of these embryos is ever used. According to Dr. Jeffrey Nelson, Director of the Huntington Reproductive Center in California, only about 21% of the patients donate the remaining embryos. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 54% want to preserve them for the future when they want to have another child, 21% want to donate them for research, and 7% donate them to another couple. As a consequence, there are over 600,000 embryos stored in labs and fertility clinics.
Though the couples who benefit from the concept of embryo adoption are happy, the practice has attracted criticism and concerns from people from various fields.
Founded in 2003, the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) is a specialist, Christian, fertility clinic in Knoxville, Tennessee which helps married, heterosexual couples adopt embryos and claims to have enabled the birth of 700 children through embryo adoption. Another such facility is the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program run by the Nightlight Christian Adoption Agency which claims to have enabled the births of 400 children from frozen embryos.
As these fertility centers only serve heterosexual couples, they have been warned of future lawsuits for discriminating against single women and same-sex couples who want a child. Those who support embryo donation for stem cell research and abortion rights activists have also expressed concerns over the views of pro-life supporters. Also, pro-life couples who seek to adopt an embryo and believe human life starts at conception itself, often face the moral dilemma of adding to the already existing frozen embryo bank as more than one embryo must be created to ensure successful implantation.