Christian program matches leftover embryos with infertile couples

(Reuters Health) - - In 1997, when Nightlight Christian Adoptions realized that thousands of human embryos were being stored in fertility clinics, the group began to connect couples who produced the embryos with couples who could not conceive.

The pairings bore more than 500 babies, and a few of those children have met the women and men whose genetic material they carry. This summer, Snowflakes, Nightlight’s embryo-matching offshoot, will mark its 20th anniversary at a picnic celebration with embryo providers, recipients and their children.

In a new study, British researchers got a sneak peak at what members of these ultramodern families might experience when they meet in person for the first time.

The researchers spoke by email with 17 embryo providers, mostly women had had leftover embryos following in vitro fertilization, and 28 recipients who had 43 children, about their unfolding relationships.

The report in Human Reproduction explores what the study participants view as the advantages and disadvantages of communicating openly with one another.

“Some of them created these amazing families. Then, of course, these are like all human relationships, some you maintain and flourish, and others don’t,” said lead author Lucy Frith, a bioethicist at the University of Liverpool in England.

Frith and her colleagues found that embryo providers and recipients who were in touch with one another and their children generally perceived the contact as positive.

“The contact helped alleviate their potential misgivings,” Frith said in a phone interview.

“Different families will want to approach it in different ways,” she said. “It’s part of the evolution of seeing reproductive technologies of creating families and families having biographies, rather than just a medical technique.”

The biggest challenges for couples on both sides of the experience concerned fears about maintaining boundaries and overcoming the challenges of geographic distance, the study found. Concerns about who would act as the parents turned out to be more imagined than real.

“Everyone saw the recipients as the parents,” Frith said. “The recipients were the parents, and the donors were involved as the recipients wanted them to be involved.”

The embryo providers were more like distant relatives, extended family they see at most a few times a year, she said.

“The only negative I can think of is imaginary, at this point at least, and that is a worry over being scrutinized or criticized by the genetic parent,” a recipient mother wrote.

One study participant wrote of the child born of the embryo she provided: “We plan to be a part of her life forever. Not knowing leaves too much for the mind to ponder.”

A recipient mother who was initially reluctant to be in touch with the provider couple described their relationship “a huge blessing.”

“Not only were we given our daughter, but a whole family too, two families actually, or one big family!” she wrote.

The Snowflakes program calls the process of matching providers with recipients “embryo adoption,” but an ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine describes the term as “misleading” because it confers full legal status onto an embryo. The committee instead uses the term “embryo donation.”

Snowflakes encourages its program participants to keep the lines of communication open with any children born from its matches.

All of its participants agreed to create the opportunity for their children to be able to initiate contact when they were older and if they so desired. Thirty of the children in the study were 5 years old or younger, 12 were 6 to 11 years old, and one was 12 to 17.

Lauri Pasch, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco Center for Reproductive Health, commended the Snowflakes program for its emphasis on fostering open communication between children and their biological parents. But Pasch, who was not involved in the study, said she views the service as discriminatory because it only places embryos with married, heterosexual couples.

Still Pasch welcomed the findings that contact between the families was neutral to very positive. “And the challenges they’re facing are relatively small and manageable, and that’s good news, comforting to another family that’s thinking about doing this,” she said in a phone interview.

“Very clearly someone should not donate their embryos if they never want to have contact with the child that’s born from them,” she said. “If in the future the child wants to have contact, it’s going to be difficult for the child if it’s not an option.”

The vast majority of Snowflakes participants communicate with one another, but less than 10 percent have met in person to date, said Kimberly Tyson, a spokeswoman for the group.

Snowflakes charges an $8,000 agency fee, Tyson said. In 2011, she counted 620,000 embryos left over from in vitro fertilization in storage in the U.S.

Embryo donation for family building was first reported in 1983, the authors write.

SOURCE: Human Reproduction, online March 8, 2017.