PrimeTime: Embryo Adoption

April 12, 2001 -- Thanks to modern medicine, Bob and Susanne Gray have the full house they always wanted: a daughter conceived with the help of fertility drugs, twins from in vitro fertilization and their youngest, conceived through old-fashioned intercourse.

But modern medicine also left them with a dilemma. With their family complete, they no longer wanted to implant in Susanne's uterus the 23 frozen embryos left over from the in vitro fertilization process. But as religious Christians, they did not want to discard what they considered potential life.

Microscopic Cells or Promise of Life?

The microscopic embryos are the result of Susanne's in vitro fertilization treatments. She was given injections to help her produce multiple eggs. The eggs were then fertilized with her husband's sperm in a lab, becoming a small cluster of cells. Some consider the fertilized egg a zygote, others call it a pre-embryo, and still others refer to it as an embryo.

Several of these embryos are then transferred back to the woman's uterus, and any extras are often frozen in case the couple wants to try again. (With frozen embryos, there is usually a one in five chance of success.)

Theoretically, frozen embryos can last forever by being stored in super-cold liquid nitrogen. And when couples no longer need them, usually the options are destroying them, donating them for research, and donating them to a fertility clinic to be used by another couple.

The Grays did not like any of the options. They believe life begins at conception, that each of the embryos is their genetic offspring, a human being and their responsibility. They wanted to know their offspring would be well taken care of, and they wanted to find parents who were college-educated Christians married for at least seven years.

Adopting an Embryo

So they found a relatively recent alternative: a program that allowed them to hand pick a couple to receive their embryos. The Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program in California helped them find Cara and Greg Vest, who would adopt the embryos, and then give birth to the Gray's genetic children.

Greg and Cara had been trying to start a family for five years, but nothing worked. They considered traditional adoption, but Cara wanted to experience pregnancy and childbirth. So they turned to the Snowflakes Program and were matched with the Grays.

Before agreeing to give up their embryos, the Grays wanted to meet the Vests face to face.

Greg, who was initially apprehensive about the program, says, "Literally five minutes after meeting them, I knew … I just knew that was the route we were going to go."

Together, the Grays and Vests went down a path very few have traveled before. But not everyone believes this is the best road to take.

"The embryos, to me, are not life," says Pamela Madsen, executive director of the American Infertility Association, which helps inform couples about their options. "They are the potential to be life."

Madsen, who also underwent in vitro fertilization, says she'll probably donate the extra embryos to stem cell research, which scientists believe may hold great promise for treating and curing many human diseases.

By donating the embryonic stem cells for research, she says, "It's giving them another chance to do something else that could be special for somebody else. Like giving blood."

The Legal Questions

Embryo adoption raises many new legal and ethical questions, according to Susan Crockin, a lawyer who specializes in adoption and reproductive technologies. For example, who has the strongest claim to children produced from those embryos? Will two genetic siblings meet each other and fall in love — not knowing they are in fact brother and sister?

Only five states have a law covering embryo adoption. Crockin says that from a legal perspective, embryo adoption is not the same as traditional adoption, "And that's what people need to understand before they go into this. It is a wonderful option, but it is not an adoption in the eyes of the law," she says.

Still, the Grays and Vests share a vision of all their children playing together, as brothers and sisters with different parents.

"The word extended family has come up quite a few times," says Greg, noting that the family could extend even further if the Vests donated any leftover embryos to another infertile couple.