USA: Christian couples answer call to save embryos left by IVF

The Guardian
Conservative US families 'adopt' from fertility clinics.
Randy and Julie McClure's three children were long out of nappies and the couple had no plans for more when they heard about Snowflakes - a scheme that helps women to become pregnant with embryos left over at fertility clinics.
"We really felt like the Lord was calling us to try to give one of these embryos - these children - a chance to live," said Mrs McClure, 45.

Their fourth child, Asa, was born 10 months ago, the product of an unexpected alliance that conservative Christians have been forming with the world of test-tube babies.

Mr McClure first had to overcome his dislike of the fertility business which, he felt, created extra embryos that were often destroyed or aborted. He consulted a church elder, who advised him: "If you want to free the slaves, sometimes you have to deal with the slave trader."

The McClures, from Bellevue, in Washington state, who home-school their three older children - aged 19, 16 and 11 - took 13 embryos from a fertility clinic in Austin, Texas. Most of these proved unviable, and one round of embryo implantation failed, before Mrs McClure finally had a successful pregnancy.

Last week President George Bush appeared with the McClures and 20 other Snowflakes families at a protest against a bill backing embryonic stem-cell research. Some of the families' babies wore T-shirts saying "Former embryo" and "This embryo was not discarded". Supporters of the scheme have begun calling the process "embryo adoption" instead of "embryo donation". The term irritates the fertility industry, abortion rights advocates and supporters of stem-cell research, who believe that the language suggests, erroneously, that an embryo has the same status as a child.

But for some conservative Christians, that is precisely the point. "I think it illustrates the truth, which is that the embryo is just that child at an earlier stage of development," said Bill Saunders, director of the Centre for Human Life and Bioethics at the Family Research Council, an organisation that "defends family, faith and freedom".

Such groups make strange bedfellows with clinics devoted to in vitro fertilisation, he concedes.

"Our position on IVF would be that you shouldn't create through IVF more embryos than are going to be implanted, and we don't think any should be frozen," Mr Saunders said. "But when it's clear that a couple are unable to or unwilling to implant an embryo - that basically they've abandoned the child - then we see embryo adoption as a solution to the problem."

The fertility industry and its supporters worry that the cuddly image of Snowflakes babies could not only dampen enthusiasm for using embryos for research, but also lead to laws that make embryo donation the only option for excess embryos, which might otherwise be stored indefinitely, used for research or discarded.

"We're concerned that the people promoting the Snowflakes programme have an explicit political agenda to actually take away choices from infertility patients," said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

"I think it's terrifically ironic that these families were built thanks to in vitro fertilisation, a medical advance that 30 years ago many of these same organisations and people objected to and fought."

Now, he said: "They don't want to let the next wonderful technology help other families".

Mr Tipton and others point out what the Snowflakes programme itself acknowledges - that most couples choose not to donate embryos to other families because they are uncomfortable having their children raised by other people. Only about 2% of the estimated 400,000 frozen embryos wind up being given to other families, according to a 2003 survey by the Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Ron Stoddart, the executive director of the Nightlight Christian Adoption agency, which started Snowflakes in 1997 and named it to reflect the frozen uniqueness of each embryo, said he expected fewer embryos to be available in future because fertility clinics were increasingly successful at implantation and would not need to create so many.

Mr Stoddart, whose group has so far assisted 59 families in giving birth to 81 babies, said once embryos were donated, only half survived the thawing process and, of those, only 35% resulted in babies. The cost of the treatment, through Snowflakes, was less than $10,000 (£5,500).

Couples adopting or donating Snowflakes embryos were mostly Christian, and most donors were white, said Lori Maze, director of Snowflakes.

Couples must agree to Snowflakes' adoption-like procedures: receiving families are screened and their finances studied, they must undergo counselling, and Snowflakes allows donating and receiving families to designate criteria for each other to meet, and maintain contact after birth.

Adopting couples must agree not to abort any embryos. If three embryos are implanted, "they have to be willing to carry and have triplets", Mr Stoddart said.

Such conditions were fine with Bob and Angie Deacon, from Virginia, who donated 13 embryos after having twins and being discouraged from another pregnancy by a doctor. "With another programme, to be honest with you, they could have been adopted by lesbian parents, and I'm totally against that," said Mr Deacon, 35.

They are not sure they want contact with an adoptive family. But on their forms, they said the adopting parents must be conservative Christians and, ideally, include a stay-at-home mother.

Mr Stoddart said he used the word adoption in a general sense and that it described the experience of the families.

"I personally feel that a child is going to feel a lot more comfortable knowing they were adopted as an embryo than knowing they were donated."

Snowflakes and other organisations have received government grants specifically to promote "embryo adoption". Several groups that oppose the term embryo adoption, including the American Fertility Association, have also received federal grants and used the money to educate couples that embryo donation is one option among many.

"We think it's a great option if couples are comfortable with donating their embryos to another couple," said Pamela Madsen, director of the fertility association. "We also think it's a great idea for couples to donate embryos for stem-cell research if that's something they're comfortable with. We also think it's acceptable for embryos to be thawed without transfer [the industry term for discarding frozen embryos]."

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines that it said "will enhance the availability of embryos for donation" by exempting embryos from medical screenings required of donated tissues, such as livers or corneas. Most frozen embryos could not have met the screening requirements because many couples are not tested for communicable diseases beforehand.

As for the conservative political embrace of the Snowflakes phenomenon, Mr Stoddart, who has sent state legislators a proposed embryo adoption bill, says that he is happy to oblige.

"The best way to increase awareness of embryo adoption is controversy," he said. "The embryonic stem-cell research debate has done more to publicise this than anything. Nobody's going to put pictures of the president kissing a child in your paper just to publicise an adoption programme."

New York Times, 3 June 2005