After trying to conceive a baby for eight years, Dana and Tim Eriksson never thought they’d see a positive pregnancy test.
But thanks to embryo adoption — an option that allows the adoptive mother to experience pregnancy and give birth to her adopted child through the transfer of donated frozen embryos — Dana became pregnant.
“We had been married 15 years and we had been trying for eight years and never once been pregnant,” Dana said. “I never thought it would happen for us. It was surreal to be able to experience it.”
Their son, Stone, was born almost four months ago, making the Erikssons the first local family known to successfully give birth to a Snowflake baby — a term the nonprofit agency the family used, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, coined to describe its embryo adoption program.
There are more than 600,000 cryo-preserved embryos in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Embryos are left over from couples who go through in vitro fertilization.
“If you made 10 embryos, we’re not going to put 10 embryos into you,” said Holly Hutchison, IVF coordinator at Reproductive Health Center. “We would transfer one. In the case of embryo adoption, you might have a couple that had two or three babies and had embryos remaining and didn’t want them to be discarded, so they allow someone else to use them to create a baby.”
The Erikssons had been through the domestic adoption process a few years prior, to adopt their daughter, River. When they were ready for another child, they tried to adopt again, but, after the heartbreak of two failed attempts where the birth mother changed her mind, the couple decided to look into other options.
“We had never fully exhausted us having a biological child, so we went back to a reproductive doctor,” Dana said. “It looked like my eggs were the issue.”
Their doctor suggested the possibility of an egg donor, but the couple decided that if Dana’s genes couldn’t be used, Tim’s wouldn’t be either.
Being completely in love with their daughter, they already knew a child didn’t have to be biologically related in order to love him or her as their own. So when the doctor mentioned embryo adoption, the couple thought it was a good idea.
“Embryo adoption is a good option for families who want to experience pregnancy, want to adopt an infant and are nervous about the control a birth mother has,” said Kimberly Tyson, marketing and program manager for Nightlight.
“After talking it all out, we thought, ‘Well, if there are embryos out there that need to be adopted and need a home, how is this different than what we did with River?’” Dana said.
Similar to domestic adoptions, couples attempting an embryo adoption must go through background checks and home studies and are then matched with a genetic family through an adoption agency.
Matches are made based on questions on subjects such as education, values, faith, financial stability and desired amount of interaction. Once a match is made, the donor couple receives a profile of the adopting couple. If they decide it’s a good match, the adopting family then receives a profile of the genetic family.
How many children an adoptive family wants is also part of the equation. If a couple hopes to have multiple children, they’d be matched with a family with more embryos, so they would be able to have genetically related siblings.
“Matching is a big part of why our program is attractive to people because the donors, like a birth mother, get to choose a recipient family,” Tyson said. “The donor family has the ultimate say, but the families are choosing one another.”
After both families agree on each other, contracts are signed and frozen embryos are sent to the adopting couple’s doctor for transfer into the future mother’s uterus.
Once they got started, the process was smooth for the Erikssons.
“Now, being on this side of it, I’m so grateful I got to experience pregnancy,” Dana said.
That’s not to say there wasn’t worry. Frozen embryo transfer has about a 40 percent success rate, so there was no guarantee that Dana would become pregnant.
“We don’t guarantee biology,” Tyson said. “So couples are given info about the embryos and they can know about the success the original owners had with the embryos. Thawing success rates vary, but it is between 60 and 80 percent. If you thaw three embryos, it is pretty likely two will survive.”
The embryo adoption process, combined with medical treatment, costs about $15,000. A domestic adoption runs from $25,000 to 30,000, Tyson said. Through Nightlight, couples who do not become pregnant can be rematched for more embryos for $2,000. If none of the embryos survive the thaw, Nightlight will rematch the couple for no fee.
Since the Erikssons only wanted one other child, they were matched with a family that had four embryos. Two survived the thaw.
“I was very emotional and said, ‘I don’t know if this one doesn’t work if I have any more transfers in me. We might have to go back to domestic adoption,’” Dana recalled. When the doctor did the transfer, he told Dana she only had about a 30 percent chance of getting pregnant.
“I was like, ‘Oh why did we do this?’” Dana said.
“We wrapped her up in bubble wrap and said, ‘Don’t move,’” Tim joked.
NOT A MATTER OF LAW
Unlike with domestic adoptions, lawyers are not part of the process.
Embryos are considered property by law, so everything is done through a contract in which the genetic family relinquishes all rights and ownership to the embryo.
From a lawyer’s point of view, the term “embryo adoption” is misleading and it’s an area with little to no regulation.
“When you’re talking about the adoption of a child, laws are highly developed. There’s a pretty clear path toward handling it,” said Heather Strickland, a Fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. “With respect to embryo adoption and donation, you’re talking about an area of law that’s not developed. The law hasn’t caught up to medical technology.”
Calling it adoption indicates that “it’s somehow regulated or the same principles apply, but, it’s just not the case,” Strickland said. “Embryo donation is probably a more accurate term for it.”
Nightlight follows “best adoption practices” — matching, background check and home studies — because the end result is the birth of a child who isn’t related genetically to the couple giving birth, Tyson said.
That’s what attracted the Erikssons.
“We just liked that it was being treated with the same officialness of adoption, even though the laws aren’t quite caught up to embryo adoption yet,” Dana said. “We also liked that this agency was used to dealing with the legality of it all, especially since they do other types of adoptions. With domestic adoption, the legal stuff is such a big part of it. So we wanted to make sure we were as protected as we could be legally.”
Another draw is the option for the biological family and adoptive family to have a relationship.
“I email with the genetic mom,” Dana said. “She’s seen pictures and we talked during pregnancy. When he was born, we sent pictures. I asked through email how she felt seeing him being a real person and she said, ‘I feel like an aunt, and I’m so happy for you.’ We have a mutual admiration. I say, ‘Thank you for this life’ and she says, ‘Thank you for giving him life.’ We have this total mutual gratitude for each other.”