Culture At Large

Asking hard questions about embryo adoption

Ellen Painter Dollar

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed this past Father’s Day, I saw photos of married dads, divorced dads and single dads; of dads caring for their biological children, adopted children and stepchildren. I saw, in other words, the diversity of families in contemporary America.

Families today are created and configured in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. This diversity is due to cultural factors, including rising rates of single parenthood, same-sex marriage and changing adoption practices. And it’s also due to reproductive technologies. Embryo adoption is one facet of technological reproduction that - as evidenced by a Fusion profile of several "extended families" formed via embryo adoption - complicates our notions of how families are created and sustained.

Clinicians routinely retrieve and fertilize many eggs from a woman undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). As a result, couples end up with more fertilized eggs than they can use. What to do with leftover fertilized eggs once a couple’s family is complete is one of the most difficult decisions they will face. IVF patients rarely consider ahead of time what they will do with leftover embryos. This decision, when it becomes unavoidable, is complicated and emotionally fraught.

Pro-life Christians in particular consider having leftover embryos destroyed as akin to murder. Couples often continue to pay freezer storage fees for leftover embryos indefinitely - a far-from-ideal solution that costs money and lacks closure. Embryo adoption, which involves donating fertilized eggs to other couples undergoing fertility treatment, allows couples to avoid leaving embryos in limbo, while helping others create the family for which they long. 

But as with most aspects of technological reproduction, embryo adoption raises some tricky questions. A baby born via embryo donation will be a full biological sibling to the donors’ children, raising questions about what sort of relationship, if any, such siblings should have with one another. Donor couples worry about entrusting their biological offspring to couples whose values and behaviors they can’t predict or control. As with open adoptions, navigating these relationships involves risk, vulnerability, creativity and a willingness to explore nontraditional ideas of what makes a family.

Procreation is rooted in relationship and our miraculous, limited human bodies.

Embryo donation, like sperm and egg donation, invites prospective parents to select donors with traits they’d like their children to inherit. This process makes sense: wouldn’t any parent, if able, want to increase the odds that their child will resemble them and be predisposed to health? But the selection process also tempts parents and the wider culture to commodify procreation, to focus on obtaining what we want rather than receiving what we are given.

And just as in traditional adoption, embryo donor and adoptive families must understand that the process, by its nature, involves loss and grief.

Procreation still abides in the realm of mystery and miracle, where human knowledge and understanding are inadequate. Despite our impressive technology, fertility experts still can’t predict, for example, which fertilized eggs will lead to a viable pregnancy or explain why some couples experience infertility. Procreation is rooted in relationship and our miraculous, limited human bodies. We haven’t yet figured out how to have a baby without a woman’s body to nurture it, and thank God for that. To separate procreation entirely from human relationship and bodies is to repeat the original sin of believing that we’ll be better off if we overcome the limitations inherent in human life.

Procreation is miraculous not because it’s foolproof, but because these muddled, mysterious relationships and bodies of ours can produce something as vital as a newborn baby. Reproductive technologies require us to contemplate how techniques such as embryo donation may alter this central dynamic, and the implications of that alteration for individuals, families and humankind 

Embryo donation appeals to many Christians, as it avoids the destruction of embryos while allowing infertile couples to have babies to whom they have a biological link (through pregnancy and birth), if not a genetic one. As with all decisions around reproductive technologies, couples must invest time in contemplating the complex questions raised by this option, and do so long before they are sitting in a clinician’s office being asked what they want to do with their leftover embryos.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Technology, Home & Family, Family, Sex, Parenting