Snowflake Adoption: A Case for Embryo Adoption through Donation

Works Cited

Bailey240v3Description: In the United States alone, there are over 400,000 frozen embryos.  What does this mean? Frozen embryos are the product of a well-known Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) called in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Infertile couples, same sex couples, or individuals who want to have or bear children can use this ART by which eggs and sperm are externally joined to create an embryo. A single IVF cycle can create many embryos, and as a result, not all of the embryos that are created are used. In order to preserve them, they are cryopreserved, or frozen. Through Embryo Adoption, these frozen embryos have the chance of life with a loving family. My paper examines the aspects of donation for adoption and its effects on both embryos and society. “Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being.” (George Bush, 2001)


Imagine yourself in these shoes: You and your significant other are infertile and long for a child. You learn about an assisted reproductive technology called in-vitro fertilization that can help you to have a child, and you undergo the in-vitro fertilization process. Once you have completed this process, you are pregnant, but now you have embryos that you no longer need. They are frozen for preservation, and you are now faced with decision of what to do with your unused frozen embryos. The focus of this paper is embryo donation for adoption, an option for frozen embryos. Every day around the world embryos are created for many different reasons and in different ways. However, with in-vitro fertilization, not all of the embryos that are created will be used, and the remainder of these embryos are frozen. The goal of my paper is to analyze the ethical issues surrounding the option for adoption of frozen embryos, which I believe is excellent option. In this paper I will discuss adoption and embryo adoption, the moral worth of the human embryo, as well as fairness and society’s role in embryo adoption.

An embryo is an unborn or unhatched offspring in the process of development, or an organism in its early stages of development, especially before it has reached a distinctively recognizable form (“Embryo”). A frozen embryo is a human embryo that is kept in a scientific storage laboratory or fertility clinic. Embryos are usually frozen when they reach 2, 4, or 8 cells (Genetics and IVF Institute). It is unknown how long embryos can be frozen. Frozen embryos have the genetic makeup of a human being as well as a great potential to develop into a living person. These frozen embryos are created through in-vitro fertilization. In-vitro fertilization or IVF is a treatment offered to infertile couples or individuals who wish to bear or have a child.  It is a process by which egg and sperm are removed from the body and the sperm externally fertilizes the egg to create an embryo, which is then implanted into the woman’s body (“in-vitro fertilization”). From this cycle, it is possible to create many embryos and the unused embryos can be frozen in liquid nitrogen for use in the future. As IVF is quite expensive, ranging from about $15,000 to $30,000 per cycle, it can be more cost effective to create many embryos at a time. The average number of eggs you can take from an IVF cycle is anywhere from eight to thirty eggs, sometimes even more. Even if you are not planning to use all of the embryos that you make, creating more than one is important, in case some of them do not survive after implantation. With the rising success rates of IVF, more embryos are being created and more are becoming leftover and sometimes even abandoned by their biological parents. An increase in these numbers is also due to the fact that people who have difficulty bearing children or cannot have biological children are using more assisted reproductive technologies to achieve the end goal of having a child. This population includes infertile men and women, same sex couples, and even individuals who may be using a sperm or egg donation system. If the embryos produced by the IVF cycle are successfully implanted into a woman with the result of a pregnancy, there may be some leftover embryos that will not be used by their creators, biological or not. Currently, there are over 400,000 cryopreserved or frozen embryos created and unused sitting in different clinics across the United States.

There are three main options to consider for a frozen embryo. The first option for the creators of the embryo is disposal. Embryos are not legally considered as persons; therefore it is legal for fertility clinics to dispose of the embryos. The second option is donation to research. Stem cell research is a big field in which embryos are necessary. Embryos have unique cells called stem cells which have the ability to form any kind of body cells. These cells are used to help research diseases that do not have cures and study genetic abnormalities. I will address neither the ethics of embryo disposal nor stem cell research in this paper. I will rather focus on the final option for frozen embryos, donation for adoption. Couples or individuals with unused embryos from IVF can choose to donate their embryos to another individual, couple, or family.

I believe that every embryo has the right to life, and that donation for adoption will be in the best interests of the embryo. This topic connects to issues of in-vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive technologies, adoption, and the moral worth of embryos. The main implication of adopting an embryo is that the embryo will have a chance at life. The ethical issues I will be addressing evoke questions such as: what is the moral worth of a human embryo, is it fair to choose adoption of embryos over the adoption of living children, and why is embryo adoption a controversial term among scholars?

The Issues Pertaining to Donation for Adoption and the Human Embryo

Every embryo, if given the chance, has the potential to become a person, a child and eventually an autonomous adult. The following arguments consider adoption as a term that should be applied to donation of frozen embryos, and the implications of donation for adoption.

Among certain ethics scholars, the term “embryo adoption” is unacceptable. Arthur Caplan questions embryo adoption, saying, “children can be adopted…but embryos?” He believes that embryos cannot be called children from the minute they are put into a petri dish. However, my point of view is that frozen embryos are not children yet, and this is not relevant to why embryo donation should have the name of adoption. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine also issued an opinion that the term should be reserved for living children. Embryos are potential persons and they should be able to be adopted. Adoption is a term that is not only used for children. Adopt a pet, adopt a forest or tree, and adopt a highway are all phrases that are commonly used. Another argument against embryo adoption is from the Catholic perspective. In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said that embryo adoption was a “situation of injustice in which fact cannot be resolved.” Reverend Tadeusz Pacholczyk agrees with this statement and said in an interview that promoting embryo adoption would only increase IVF rates, which is definitely not accepted by the Catholic Church, as it is considered as an unnatural and abnormal way of reproduction. He concluded his argument by saying that the case of the frozen embryos is tragic and there is nothing we can do about it. The way I interpret this is that Catholics who have the same mindset as Reverend Pacholcyzk think that they should not be discarded but they should not be adopted. The fact of the matter is that the embryos exist and something needs to be done with them, as we do not know if time frozen affects their chances of survival after implantation. Adoption is the only way for frozen embryos to be born, ultimately giving them the gift of life.

The numbers of embryos are continuously growing and embryo adoption and IVF are becoming more popular. According to an online article from Time Magazine, in 2011, there were 1,019 transfer cycles from donated embryos, which is up from 933 cycles in 2010. More than one third of those led to the birth of at least one child, according to the Centers for Disease Control (Richards). While this is a large number, it still pales in comparison to the 400,000 other embryos that remain frozen. Considering this, I tried to find reasons why embryos were not being adopted. I found that this actually came from a hesitancy to donate embryos. In a study conducted “among patients (biological parents) who wanted no more children, 53 percent did not want to donate their embryos to other couples, mostly because they did not want someone else bringing up their children, or did not want their own children to worry about encountering an unknown sibling someday. Forty-three percent did not want the embryos discarded. About 66 percent said they would be likely to donate the embryos for research… Twenty percent said they were likely to keep the embryos frozen forever” (Richards). In donation, many biological parents do not feel comfortable handing off their biologically related offspring to another family. In fact, in a study conducted by Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, a certain group of people who currently have frozen embryos, say they are only 7% likely to donate their embryos to another family.

Worrying about the welfare of the child is the most prevalent issue in donation for adoption. Dr. Lyerly, an OB/GYN and bioethicist spoke about her patients, saying “If they couldn’t raise that child, many felt that the responsible choice was to make sure they didn’t become children in someone else’s life. One woman told me, ‘I’d rather have them destroyed than born’” (Richards). This fear for donation is a very valid and relevant fear. However, many embryo adoption agencies are thoughtful about these issues. In fact, the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program is one example of this. This program is run by the same organization that runs the Christian Nightlight Adoption. They have four main stages before a couple can adopt an embryo. The first is Parent Preparation. All persons seeking to adopt an embryo are required to go through a home study to prepare them for a child through embryo adoption. The second part of the process is a donor match-up. Everyone will receive a background check to make sure that they are suitable candidates for embryo adoption. If they meet all of the requirements, they are then able to adopt their embryo.

Embryo donation is giving an individual or couple the chance to experience having their own baby. They are so grateful for the opportunity that they are given to have a child. The National Embryo Donation Center in Tennessee sometimes lets their donors choose their recipients. They say: “…The question remains whether allowing donors to have control over who gets their embryos would help them feel better about giving them up. If this isn’t enough, the donors can choose to keep in touch with their recipient families. [“Our patients view it as adoption,” insists Stephanie Moyers. In fact, she says more than half of donors prefer an “open” process—which can range from asking to be notified of a pregnancy and a child’s milestones to regular contact and visits. “In one case, the donor and recipients families go to Disneyworld together every year,” she says. “The twins are five now.”] (Richards).

Embryo adoption is a term which should be applied to all cases involving the current donation of frozen embryos. Donation for adoption is not only rewarding for the donor and recipient families and parents but it is giving an embryo the chance at life that it deserves. The following section addresses the worth of an embryo pertaining to adoption.

The Moral Worth of a Human Embryo                                                                         

Legally, a frozen embryo cannot be considered as a person. This is due to the fact that in the United States it is legal for a woman to have an abortion, or a termination of her pregnancy. If embryos were considered as persons, then it would be both unconstitutional and illegal to have abortion as it would be considered as murder.  Personhood in terms of embryos and frozen embryos is a heavily debated topic in the world of medical ethics. However for this essay I do not believe that I can call frozen embryos persons, and I will not address whether or not their life has begun. However, I will explain why I do believe they should be considered as humans. With that being said, I also believe that they do have a moral worth, and that all embryos deserve an equal amount of respect to an autonomous human being.

Equality is something that I believe to be a self-evident truth. Regardless of how they come into the world, I believe that all humans should be treated equally. For me, this includes frozen embryos, as I consider them as humans. Some people cannot consider them humans due to the fact that they have not been born. The way I see this is that embryos deserve and are entitled to an equal moral status due to the fact that they have the genetic makeup of a human being and that they have the potential to be born and become a person. Robert George, a bioethicist and professor at Princeton University, has an equal moral status view of the human embryo. He says, “The principle to which I subscribe is one that states that all human beings are equal and ought not to be harmed or considered to be less than human on the basis of age or size or stage of development or condition of dependency” (Harvard Magazine). In addition, he argues that human embryos are “not something distinct from a human being, it is a human being at the earliest stage of development.” I agree with this assessment. A frozen embryo already has the genetic makeup of a human being. Their DNA shows that they are humans, just like the rest of the people on the earth. However, this is not enough for some people to give embryos an equal moral status or give respect to the embryos.

According to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, if you are not a person, then you are a thing (Baertschi). Right now, this is also the way the law works when talking about embryo donation. Frozen embryos are not and cannot be considered as persons, so instead the term property is applied to them. In order to adopt a frozen embryo, the process is legally called a transfer of property. I have a problem with this, as I believe “property” objectifies the frozen embryo, and turns it into a “thing”. I believe this is an offensive term, and that when referring to adoption, we must call the process “Embryo Adoption” rather than a “Transfer of Property”. Kant says, with the exception of animals, that if you are not a person then you do not have a moral value. While frozen embryos do not have the status of a person, they are entitled to both a moral worth and respect. It is a fundamental principle both of Christian teaching and also of natural justice that human beings deserve utmost respect. In addition, The Declaration of Geneva (1948) requires that doctors should “maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception.” In 1992, The Tennessee Supreme Court argued the status of the human embryo is that it deserves a greater respect because it is a human, but not the respect accorded to persons. This was due to the fact that they may not ever become persons, but they have full biological potential. This is the opinion of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine as well. Embryos may not deserve the same respect as a person, but they certainly are entitled to the respect of a human, which includes the respect for, in their case, potential life. The moral worth of the human embryo is equal to the rest of living humans in society. We all deserve to be respected and we are all respectful of each other based on the fact that we are all human beings. This is extended by the recent Option of Adoption Act in Georgia. In the 2009-2010 legislative season, the idea of embryo adoption was brought up to replace the use of the current term of property transfer. The Option of Adoption Act refers to human embryos as potential children, and asks them to be included under the umbrella of the word “child”. Georgia is the only state to have passed this type of legislature in the entire United States. I think that the Option of Adoption Act can definitely serve as a model and reference for other states who seek to change the transfer of property process to embryo adoption.  I hope that many states will soon consider something like this, as we all owe embryos the respect and an equal moral status to other living human beings.

I believe that living human beings like me have an obligation to respect others. This includes the human embryo, as they are potential persons as well. In general terms, human beings are held to the highest moral status out of all other living things. Even though frozen embryos are not considered as persons, as humans they deserve this same high moral status and worth as well as respect.

Fairness between Adoption of Embryos and Living Children

Adoption: to take into one’s family through legal means and raise as one’s own child (“Adoption”). Adoption is a practice that has been supported by all different cultures, races, and religions for centuries. Adopting a child is a common practice when a couple cannot bear a child, but there are also many other reasons for adopting children. I know of a few people who were adopted as children, and their parents love them very much. They are treated as a part of a family unit. Another form of adoption is embryo adoption. The end result is exactly the same as adoption of a living child: a child brought into a home and family.

The major difference between live child adoption and embryo adoption is that the children are already alive, and are looking for a home and a family. The frozen embryos in fertility clinics are not getting older, and are not capable of understanding that they are not in a home or a family. Many people will say that the children deserve to be adopted before anyone should think about the embryos, which is an argument that has a lot of support. Consider a case in which there is a burning building and you can only save either one five year old child or a tray of frozen embryos. Who would you save? I said that I would save the child. The reason for this was because the five year old is alive and can feel pain. The fact that this child is living really swayed my answer because frozen embryos are not alive and do not have the capacity to feel pain. Morally, I do not value this child more than I value a tray of frozen embryos because I believe that we all have the same moral worth and that we are equal. However, I do value life.

Another question is will society prefer embryos over children because they can select the embryos with similar traits to the adoptive parents? In other words, if a couple is white with brown eyes will they favor embryo adoption because they can select this? When looking to adopt, couples may or may not decide that they want their child to look like them. Even outside of embryo adoption, couples can choose the race of their child by looking to adopt in certain areas or countries. While some may consider this as discriminatory, I don’t believe that it would add discrimination in adoption practices, whether it is embryo adoption or a live adoption. Another side to this question is will society prefer frozen embryo adoption over live adoption because they have more control over the situation? One mother with two adopted children and two embryo-adopted children says that she felt like she had more control over the pregnancy and felt better about a time frame when she had her two embryo-adopted children. In a live adoption, couples generally have to wait from a few months to a few years for their requests for a child to be met. She said that she didn’t love the children who she gave birth to any more than her other two adopted children, but it did help her to bond with them. Just as she loves the four children equally, I believe that embryo adoption and live adoption are equally as important.

Because embryos and living persons have an equal moral status, I believe that it is fair to consider embryo adoption and live adoption equally. According to the organization AdoptUSKids, there are 104,000 children in the United States who need to be adopted, but there are also over 400,000 frozen embryos, many of which can be adopted, and need a home and family. Some people may prefer embryo adoption over live adoption, but there is definitely a prevalent need for both.


The ultimate goal of embryo adoption is to provide as many frozen embryos as possible with the opportunity of life. Adoption is a term that should be applied to frozen embryos. Many families, fertility centers, and embryo donation and adoption centers consider embryo donation as adoption. While donation may not be an offensive term, I believe that adoption is a better word, implying that the end result of this currently named transfer of property will be a child. Because I consider these frozen embryos humans, their moral worth is equal to that of a living person. They are owed an equal amount of respect. They are not, however, considered as persons. I do believe it is fair to consider embryo adoption and live adoption of equal importance. There is an obvious need for both, but embryo adoption is much less publicized and much less popular.

In order to raise awareness about this topic, it is very important that professionals in the fertility and IVF community communicate with the people they are helping that embryo adoption is an option that they can choose, whether they are the ones donating their embryos or adopting the embryos. I think that anyone who has the potential to be involved in embryo adoption should be told about what embryo adoption is and what it entails. Every clinic or doctor’s office that provides IVF treatment should be required to share the option of embryo adoption with their patients who have unused frozen embryos. I do not wish for embryo adoption to take the place of adoption of living children, but at the same time, the frozen embryos must not stay frozen forever when they have the potential to become actively contributing persons of society. The Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program is a resource for many families looking to adopt or donate frozen embryos, and they are very capable of helping families, couples, or individuals who are interested in finding out more about embryo adoption. I think that if I were to change policy surrounding the issue of frozen embryos, the main thing that I would change would be to put a limit on the amount of embryos created per IVF cycle to lessen the amount of embryos that end up being leftover, or no longer needed by its biological creator. However, an implication of a greater number of embryo adoptions might mean that more people are comfortable with the in-vitro fertilization process. This could potentially lead to a number of people feeling comfortable with the fact that their embryos may be adopted. This could also create a whole new set of problems. Another implication of more embryo adoption would be discrimination. In pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, an assisted reproductive technology which is used after IVF to help find any life-threatening or disabling conditions, one would be able to select healthier embryos. If I had the opportunity, I would have liked to talk to a few of the donors who put their frozen embryos up for adoption and find out what their motives to donate were. I also would have liked to research more about other options pertaining to frozen embryos, even though I really believe in the argument for embryo adoption.

Like I said, the goal of embryo adoption is to give all frozen embryos an opportunity to live. I hope one day that there will never have to be the option of adoption because every embryo created through assisted reproductive technologies would never have to be frozen in the first place. Frozen embryos are persons in the making and deserve to have the same moral worth and amount of respect as a living person. The option of embryo adoption is the best way to provide a frozen embryo with the gift of life.

By Carolyn Bailey

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One Response to Snowflake Adoption: A Case for Embryo Adoption through Donation

  1. Carolyn says:

    What is the worth of a frozen embryo? Is it important to consider them as humans?

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