Embryo 'Adoption' Joins Two Families

ByABC News

Aug. 22, 2002 -- After Bob and Susanne Gray had one child with the help of fertility drugs and then twins by in vitro fertilization, they were amazed when Susanne became pregnant with a fourth child — by an old-fashioned accident.

They were thrilled with the birth of their daughter Ali, but it presented them with an unexpected problem: what to do with the 23 fertilized embryos left over from their fertility treatment.

Devout Christians, the Georgia couple believed that life begins at conception — and that each of the 23 embryos, which were being preserved in cold storage, was a human being. If all were used in fertility treatments, the chances were that at least three or four would lead to successful pregnancies. Theoretically, all 23 could become babies.

The Grays felt their family was complete and did not want to use the leftover embryos to try to have even more children. But they also were not prepared to accept two of the usual options for surplus embryos: donating them to research or destroying them.

"To us there's really no difference between letting that happen and aborting a pregnancy," Bob Gray told Primetime.

The couple also did not like the third option: anonymous donation to a fertility clinic so the embryos could help another couple have children. "We wanted to give them the best possible life and the best possible future," Susanne Gray said. "And that meant finding the right family for them."

Choosing the Right Family

The right family for the Grays meant a Christian, college-educated couple who had been married for at least seven years. On the Internet, the Grays found the Christian-run Snowflake Embryo Adoption Program, which promises to help genetic parents find a suitable home for their "pre-born children," giving them "some control over their destiny."

The program, run by California-based Nightlight Christian Adoptions, is one of a growing number of private programs that treat embryo donation like the adoption of a child. Embryo adoption has no legal standing and is not recognized by courts, and only five states have any legal protection for the recipients of donated embryos. However, embryo adoption has attracted the attention of Congress, which passed a measure earmarking nearly $1 million to boost public awareness of embryo adoption.

The Snowflake program requires prospective adoptive parents to undergo financial and criminal background checks, as well as counseling with social workers on parental responsibilities. So far, the Snowflake program has helped more than a dozen couples have babies by embryo adoption.

An unusual feature of the Snowflake program allows the donors to choose the adoptive parents and gives them the option of staying in touch if both parties agree so they can follow their biological child's progress.

The Grays were confident that they could emotionally distance themselves enough to see their biological offspring raised by another family. "We are donating frozen embryos. I have not physically become pregnant," said Susanne Gray. "When you are pregnant, you build a relationship with that baby long before it's born."

Finding the Right Family

The program put the Grays in touch with a Virginia couple, Greg and Cara Vest. The Vests had spend five years trying to get pregnant, but nothing had worked, not even in vitro fertilization, so they had signed up with the Snowflake program and paid the $3,500 processing fee.

The Vests met the Grays' criteria, and the couples arranged a meeting at the Grays' home. "It was like walking into family," said Cara Vest, who played with the Grays' four children and at one point had all four of them on her lap. By the end of the weekend, the Gray children were calling the Vests Uncle Greg and Aunt Cara.

The couples decided to go ahead with the adoption, signing a contract in which the Grays gave up all parental rights, but were guaranteed at least a yearly update on the child's progress.

The two couples told each other they would become even closer, and imagined a future where all the children would play together — genetic brothers and sisters, with different parents.

But they acknowledged that those plans could change. "If they do find it more comfortable to pull back, I don't think that we would have any problem with that," said Susanne Gray, "because we truly see these embryos as their children."

Children Meet Their Bioligical Brother

The first attempt to transfer an embryo failed, but the second was successful, and this May, Cara Vest gave birth to a baby boy named Jonah. Three months later, the two families had a "reunion" at the beach in Ocean Isles, N.C., the Grays meeting Jonah for the first time. The Grays' children were enchanted with their biological baby brother, including the 6«-year-old twins, Marshall and Savannah, who came from the same batch of embryos as Jonah.

As Bob Gray held 3-month-old Jonah, he said he had no problem remembering who the boy's father was. "Greg is the dad... and always will be the dad. I just have the privilege of holding him once in a while," he said.

"I feel like my brother and sister have had a child and we're here, we're excited to see their child, as I would any of my nieces or nephews," said his wife Susanne.

Cara Vest said that Jonah would grow up with two families who had both made allowances for him to have a good life, the Grays giving up their embryo so the Vests could have a child, and the Vests allowing the Grays to be a part of his life.

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