Frozen embryo 'open adoption' raises hopes, questions

Kevin and Deb McCrea with (from left) Kerynn 6 months (at the time), Carter (6 years), and Hunter McCrea (7 years).
Kevin and Deb McCrea with (from left) Kerynn 6 months (at the time), Carter (6 years), and Hunter McCrea (7 years). Today

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Carmen Olalde really wanted children. She went through years of infertility treatment and IVF, then a difficult pregnancy, to have her twins. And as her twins turned four, she realized that two kids were enough.

But she still had four frozen embryos from her last IVF cycle. And so she made a decision that put her at the frontier of reproductive ethics. She donated the embryos to a Virginia couple also suffering from infertility, whom she met via a website ad – on the condition that the donation be "open," and they send regular photos of any resulting child and hopefully keep in touch by e-mail and phone.

“My motherly part of me thinks that I think that I would at least want to know what happened to them, that it would hit me once in a while that I have these genetic children out there. But at least I will know that [the couple] Karolina and Oscar have them and that they’re happy, they’re OK,” says Olalde.

Meet the modern “open adoption” family – at least two hopeful humans and one embryo, brought together by science, trust, complicated legalities and a goodly bit of luck.

Many post-birth adoptions these days are “open,” in which the birth and adoptive families know each other’s name and perhaps have some degree of contact. Pre-birth arrangements may be following suit, though the law hasn't yet caught up.

Embryo donation has long been available at IVF clinics, but in the late 1990’s, embryo “adoption” agencies opened, with the goal of placing the roughly 500,000 unused frozen embryos in the U.S. with prospective families. Although they encourage open arrangements, most agencies leave that decision to the families involved.

Some open-donor recipients say they want the experience of being pregnant and giving birth, and for their children to know their biological origins. For their part, many donor parents say they were motivated to help out other parents.

“Parents have very challenging choices about what will happen to the rest of their embryos. In some cases, they couples may be moved by remembering the experience their own infertility,” says Connie Shapiro, author of "When You're Not Expecting: An Infertility Survival Guide."

The openness factor may also be the deciding factor for some donors on the fence. In most cases, the biological parents select the recipients.

The control factor appealed to Karolina Dembinska-Lemus and her husband Oscar, who received Olalde's frozen embryos. “For about three-and-a-half years we tried everything, domestic and international adoption and being foster parents. We had parents changing their minds left and right. It got to be too much,” she says. The first try of implanting two embryos did not work, but they hope to try again in the next few months.

Dembinska-Lemus was also looking for embryos from Hispanic parents like the Olaldes; Oscar is from El Salvador. Embryo donation is also generally cheaper than finding an egg donor or a surrogate. While some donor agencies collect high fees for matching prospective parents with frozen embryos, the donor doesn't make money off the exchange.

Still, embryo donation is relatively rare.

“The idea of someone else raising their genetic offspring is very hard for a lot of couples,” says Linda Applegarth, director of psychological services for The Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York. And not everyone wants to stay in touch. “The couple I last met with wanted no knowledge of the recipients. They wanted to move on,” Applegarth says.

The donation arrangements are murky legally, as well as emotionally. Adoption laws only cover children already born, so families involved in embryo donation usually sign forms and contracts dictating "ownership" of the embryos, often hiring their own lawyers for private agreements. Some follow up with a legal adoption after a child is born to further secure their rights.

Margaret Swain, an attorney whose practice focuses on adoption and reproductive technology, says children born from donation will likely appreciate an open arrangement, even though parents might initially feel uncomfortable.

“Following the lessons learned from adoption, and what we are hearing from children born through gamete donation, some degree of openness is probably a good idea. Children born of gamete donation -- donation of either egg or sperm --  usually like to know more about the person who donated, or to meet that person,” she says.

Rebecca Hannafin of Portland, Ore., who has a newborn from an anonymous donor, says, “We'll be putting a letter in our file at the clinic to let the donating family know that we're open to contact. It's a long shot, but I do think we owe it to our daughter to try. I still believe that kids deserve as much information about their genetic origins as we can provide them.”

Debra McCrea of Grimes, Iowa says she felt on some level that embryos she donated were, after all, her children, which was why she chose to give them to a family rather than to science. She donated six embryos each to three different recipients -- one of whom she found on Craigslist.

“Although it would be awesome to have a chance to save somebody’s life through stem cell research, that’s not the reason we went into this. I wanted my kids to have a ton of siblings, but my husband and I couldn’t afford to have that many.

“There are some emotional ties there. But it’s a gift for us, because otherwise they wouldn’t have a chance to come to life to all,” she says.

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