The Last Straw: Embryo Adoption

It’s early morning at the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) in Knoxville, Tenn. Dr. Carol Sommerfelt, the embryologist, has already begun her full day of transfers. I watch as she draws tiny plastic straws from liquid nitrogen tanks and dips the tubes containing embryos into a controlled-temperature bath. She checks and rechecks names and numbers.

After taking the straws to the microscope’s stage, she snips off the ends. Holding her breath, she slowly pushes a plunger through the straw. One by one the embryos move into a Petri dish that contains the proper media for safe thawing and expansion. The embryos, having been suspended in cryogenic limbo for months – sometimes even years – swell with the ingress of fluid. Two, six, at times as many as 100 cells, constitute new human beings. Breathtaking.

Dr. Sommerfelt moves the tiny lives from one solution to the next, bringing them fully back to normal fluid balance. The healthy ones become apparent quickly. Others remain unchanged, crystallized, having failed to survive the freeze-thaw process. I hear only the hum of the heating equipment as I recognize with her the death of a fellow human being.

For the surviving embryos, the appointments have already been made. Background checks completed. Donating and adoptive parents paired. Medical checks completed for the adoptive mother. Hormonal preparation for transfer on this special day.

Dr. Jeff Keenan, fertility specialist and head of the NEDC, rechecks the identification and status of embryos before his final consultation with the recipient mom. He explains the status of the embryos selected and obtains consent. The operating room is prepared. Everything’s ready.

After examining the recipient to determine the precise location for placing the embryos, he uses instruments and ultrasound to pass the special catheter – plastic, but tested to be non-embryo-toxic – through the window to the adjoining lab.

Dr. Sommerfelt, standing on the other side of the window, moves the embryos to the final solution, draws them up into the transfer catheter, and passes it back to Dr. Keenan. Using ultrasound guidance, he transfers the embryos to the proper uterine location.

Once he’s finished, Dr. Sommerfelt checks to ensure that all the embryos have moved from tube to uterus.

From this moment each embryo must accomplish what God designed it to do – find a suitable site in the uterine wall and grow into it. Implant.

The hormonal environment has been optimized, but the miracle remains in God’s hands. The physician, embryologist and I whisper prayers for the successful transfer of each precious human life.

The questions

The NEDC was created on the foundational belief that human life even as early as the one-cell stage, possesses the full rights of personhood. The doctors here, specializing in fertility issues, offer a full range of services including embryo adoption.

Many wonder how they can be adopted, if embryos and fetuses are not persons according to U.S. law. And what constitutes an ethical Christian response to the numerous frozen embryos?

The Center was created due to this very extraordinary dilemma. More than 400,000 – some estimate half a million – embryos lie frozen in the United States.

Some suggest these “extra embryos,” unwanted by the parents, should become fodder for experimentation and stem cell research. Others suggest they simply be discarded. And a large number of pro-lifers, lacking conviction about the value of these persons, suggest they remain frozen.

How did we get into this situation?

Generally speaking, when fertility clinics do in-vitro procedures, they harvest more eggs than they can safely transfer in one cycle. The unused embryos are frozen (cryopreserved) for future use in liquid nitrogen (at negative 70 degrees F).

And if the first group of embryos transferred go on to implant in the uterus, the frozen embryos may have no future.

The solution

Ethicists nonChristian and believing struggle with the issues involved in reproductive technology. But about some issues NADC staff members are clear. So several times a year they devote set days to transferring embryos available for adoption. Rather than debating the ethics of in vitro, they – with the assistance of Bethany Christian Services – facilitate the adoption of available frozen embryos for couples with hearts and homes open to them.

Yet not all pro-lifers approve of the center’s purpose. Some ethicists and theologians have such negative views of in vitro itself, sometimes even calling it an “inherent evil,” that they oppose embryo transfer and embryo adoption.

Yet if we look at the embryos themselves and construct a less-volatile hypothetical, the solution becomes clear. What if it were possible to retrieve viable embryos from the fallopian tubes in an ectopic – or tubal – pregnancy, a medical emergency in which the mother’s life is at risk? What if we could freeze the affected embryo until the mother healed and then transfer it back into her womb? Most would applaud such a solution to a situation that at present always ends in an embryo’s death.

Or what if a pregnant woman were diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and we could retrieve the embryo, freeze it while she underwent radical treatment, and then transfer it back to her womb after her full recovery? Most would consider this a laudable advance in medical technology. In such a situation in-vitro technology doesn’t color the issue. A human life, having innate value, represents a person in need of rescue.

Such is the case with the existing population of frozen embryos. While I have serious reservations about freezing human embryos, Christian ethicists and theologians must remain consistent in their view of the sanctity of human life. Embryos, having endured frozen limbo for years, even decades, have no voice and no chance if we fail to speak on their behalf.

I watched that morning while Dr. Sommerfelt removed each embryo-containing straw from liquid nitrogen. And I observed as each gradually warmed. The thought that each was alive left me speechless as I considered how few were getting a chance to develop and grow. Some couples with biological children are open to embryo adoption. Others with untreatable fertility issues yet wanting children are likewise open to this process. Each represents a nobility of sacrifice, of love “for the least of these.” In opting to pursue embryo adoption these people strike me as truly Christlike.

The broader pro-life community must prayerfully consider that beyond opposing abortion, beyond opposing embryonic stem cell research, beyond speaking on behalf of pre-born babies and beyond raising awareness for national and international adoption, we must add one more group to those who deserve our advocacy. We must include the adoption of our tiny frozen neighbors … to the very last straw.

William Cutrer, M.D., is a licensed obstetrician and gynecologist, a certified Christian sex therapist, an expert in reproductive technologies and an ordained minister.

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