At only 13 months old, baby CJ DeVore has no idea what it took to bring her into the world: a buried bucket of money, a donated embryo, a surrogate and two people who weren’t ready to give up on their dream of being parents.
After eight years of trying and failing to become parents, Charlie and Matt DeVore thought they were out of options. They’d tried infertility procedures, and when those didn’t work, they tried adoption. But that fell through, too.
“I was trying to decide if I could just walk away,” Charlie DeVore told ABCNews.com. “To put that much money into something and have it fall apart is devastating. You don’t have that money to go through the next adoption.”
Then Matt DeVore’s uncle died in a car accident, so the couple drove to be with the rest of his family. The uncle was a farmer who buried money in buckets, and the rest of the family thought Charlie and Matt DeVore should have the first bucket to try again and have a baby.
Matt DeVore’s sister volunteered to be a surrogate, but Charlie DeVore’s eggs had been problematic and didn’t get large enough to fertilize. And after a hysterectomy, she only had one ovary left, which was scarred.
“I was like, ‘Thank you so much, but I don’t have a baby to give you,’” Charlie DeVore said.
That’s when the sister came back to suggest embryo adoption through a program called Snowflakes. Charlie and Matt DeVore had never heard of it.
Here’s how it works: When a couple undergoes in-vitro fertilization, doctors fertilize several of their eggs in a lab. Once they become embryos (not all of them do), doctors usually only implant the healthiest two or three embryos into the mother in the hopes that she will become pregnant. The remaining embryos can be frozen to be implanted when the couple is ready for another baby. A couple can also donate their frozen embryos.
According to the Nightlight Christian Adoptions, it founded the Snowflake Embryo Adoption program in 1997. Since then, 366 “snowflake babies” have been born. Snowflake is one of a handful of organizations to get federal funding for embryo donation, which include RESOLVE, Inc. and Bethany Christian Services.
The DeVores' embryo adoption worked for them. They were matched with a donor, and CJ was born two years later after being carried by her aunt, who served as a surrogate. She’s now 13 months old and has even met her biological father, Charlie DeVore said.
But embryo donation is a controversial topic often tied to the abortion debate, bioethicists say.
New York University bioethicist Art Caplan wrote an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1996 that may have accidentally sparked the embryo adoption movement. He suggested using the thousands of abandoned frozen embryos in fertility clinics nationwide to study stem cells. Why go through the “morally problematic” task of creating embryos for this research when they already existed but had been abandoned?
But people who viewed embryos as people didn’t like this idea, he said.
“The right-to-life movement said ‘We don’t need to use abandoned embryos in research. We can put them up in adoption and have couples adopt them,’” Caplan said. “But it’s not like every embryo is a person. Many embryos are mis-wired or genetically malformed so they can’t become anything. ... It’s also true, by the way, in the natural making of embryos -- in bedrooms or the backseats of cars -- that many of them don’t work right. There’s probably 50 percent embryo loss just naturally.”
He said the longer an embryo is frozen, the more likely it is to have problems. In addition, he said the demand for embryo adoption is likely very low considering that couples often chose to undergo in-vitro fertilization instead of adoption because they want to have a baby with their DNA.
Federal funding for programs like Snowflake started during the George W. Bush administration, said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. But at the same time, there was a ban on doing anything that would harm or destroy an embryo. It was officially called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment but became known informally as the “embryo research ban.”
In addition, federal dollars could not be used for anything the public deemed morally objectionable, which is why they were neither used to directly fund abortions or go toward stem cell research, Kahn said.
"This was a way of actually doing exactly that, using federal dollars to fund a quite controversial program around the use of human embryos -- but the flip side," Kahn said
The funding for embryo adoption peaked in 2009 and 2010, with $4.2 million each year, but these programs have been defunded over the last several years. In 2013, they received only $980,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.