There are about 400,000 frozen human embryos at reproductive medical facilities in the United States. They were created in glass petri dishes by fertility doctors, who usually make several for each couple, since most artificially created embryos do not develop into babies once they have been transplanted to the womb.
What to do with the remaining embryos once a couple has had all the children they want is a sticky question. Many Americans -including President George W. Bush - believe these embryos ought to have the same rights as people who have been born. They do not want the embryos to be destroyed or used for medical research. Religious groups - and the U.S. government - are therefore promoting embryo adoption an option for America's frozen embryos.
Like most new mothers, Paige Faulk is completely enchanted by her daughter, Noelle. "She's awesome," she says, a smile spreading across her face. "She has so much personality. She's very loving and very active. She loves to learn new things."
Ms. Faulk gave birth to Noelle two years ago, after adopting 8 unused embryos from a couple in Colorado who had frozen them 5 years earlier. Ms. Faulk and her husband, Stuart, had tried for many years to conceive a child -- naturally and through in-vitro fertilization. But Paige Faulk suffers from premature ovarian menopause, and so at the age of 29, she was told she would never conceive a child of her own.
Then one day, while listening to a Christian radio station, Ms. Faulk learned about the Snowflakes adoption program, which matches infertile couples with people who have frozen embryos they don't want. "They aired the first Snowflake baby and her mom," she recalls. "Marlene and Hannah, talking about, you know, please adopt the other embryos. And I just started crying. It was just really exciting to think about being able to give birth."
The Snowflakes program was launched in 1997, as part of a more traditional adoption program called Nightlight Christian Adoptions. The "Snowflakes" name refers to the fact that the embryos are frozen - and also to the founders' beliefs that each embryo, like a snowflake, is unique.
Program director Lori Maze says although couples with unwanted frozen embryos have always had the option of donating them to someone else, the Snowflakes program is different. "Embryo donation programs through IVF (i.e. in-vitro fertilization) clinics are generally anonymous," she points out. "In other words, the family that is donating their embryos will have no say in the selection of the couple to whom their embryos go. So we approach the process as an adoption, and we allow the donating family to have involvement in the selection process, just like with a traditional domestic adoption, although we like to say that it's just occurring 9 months earlier."
Lori Maze says most of the couples who come to the Snowflakes program looking to adopt have been struggling with infertility for years. Although many have considered traditional adoption, Ms. Maze says the opportunity to allow an embryo to grow into a human being appeals to these couples' religious and moral convictions.
But the fact that they will be using the embryos of other couples who have had trouble getting pregnant is problematic for ethicists like Arthur Caplan, who chairs the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. "It's simply deceptive - it's not honest - to say 'adopt embryos that are left over from infertile couples," according to Dr. Caplan. "You want to adopt embryos from people who are as fertile as possible. That's going to give you the best chance to have a baby, if that's the way you want to go." Especially, Arthur Caplan says, when you consider that each embryonic implantation costs anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000.
Arthur Caplan insists the Snowflakes program - and other programs like it that have received grants from the U-S Department of Health and Human Services - are not just about helping infertile couples get pregnant. He says these programs are using federal money to promote President Bush's political agenda. "I think it's obvious that the whole embryo adoption idea has been put forward as a way to diffuse an issue that the president has been losing on," he says. "Congress has been moving, both in the House and in the Senate, to allow embryonic stem cell research," an area of research that becomes more problematic, according to Dr. Caplan, if you've been taught to think of those stem cells as babies, rather than as embryos.
For her part, Lori Maze does not deny that the Snowflakes program is very much opposed to embryonic stem cell research. But she bristles at the charge that the program is dishonest - or that it is about politics. "To a certain extent, yes, we are trying to educate the nation, or the community, that these embryos are, in fact, children," she says. "I mean, that's what results from these embryos. The only thing they need to reach their full potential is a womb. But we don't ever recommend to anyone that this is a program they need to do. Our program is there for those families that truly feel called to follow this path, knowing that at the end of this journey, there still may not be a baby for them."
So far, 81 children have been born as a result of the Snowflakes program, and 17 more are expected in the coming months. The Department of Health and Human Services has handed out nearly $1 million in grants to promote embryo adoption. Meanwhile Congress is considering a bill that would greatly expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. It has already been passed in the House, but President Bush has vowed to veto the measure if it gets to his desk.