Program helps families 'adopt' embryos donated by other couples

See how one couple overcame infertility through a program that helps families 'adopt' embryos donated by other couples


After several failed pregnancies and two emergency surgeries on her fallopian tubes, Michelle and Michael had almost lost hope for having a child.

“I always knew that our percentages were pretty low,” Michelle, who withheld her last name for privacy, told "Even though the doctors kept saying, ‘Well, IVF is your only option,’ we still felt like there has to be something else out there."

Michelle and her husband ruled out in vitro fertilization (IVF) for personal and religious beliefs, and had mixed feelings about traditional adoption.

“It just wasn’t a very hopeful situation,” Michelle, who was 34 at the time, explained. “If we had decided to adopt domestically we were looking at a minimum of a two year wait and that’s if someone chooses you.”

Even though Michelle felt defeated and out of options, she continued to do research on adoption, hoping something would click. That’s when she discovered the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program, part of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a non-profit. The program helps families “adopt” embryos donated by other couples that were produced through IVF.

The Embryo Adoption Center estimates that there are over 600,000 frozen embryos stored in the U.S. When IVF couples finish their family building, these "extra" embryos can be terminated, frozen indefinitely, given to science for research or donated for reproduction. The first embryo adoption program started in 1997 with Nightlight and the Embryo Adoption Awareness Center estimates that over 7,000 children have been born to families from remaining donated frozen embryos since the mid ‘90s.

“I knew that embryo adoption was the answer for us,” Michelle said. “It would allow us to carry a pregnancy, it would allow me to be able to breastfeed, [and] it would allow me to nurture a child from almost the very beginning, which was very important to us.”

Embryo adoption may appeal to families who want to experience pregnancy and childbirth— plus it's slightly less expensive than IVF. In the U.S., IVF can cost up to $20,000, while embryo adoption at the Snowflakes agency cost up to $17,000.

According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART), the average success for IVF in 2014 was about 34 percent per cycle. The statistics for frozen embryo transfers (FET) among Snowflakes families are similar.

“Right now the success rates have been pegged at about 47 percent,” Kimberly Tyson, the program director at Snowflakes and Nightlight Christian Adoption told

The process of adopting embryos is treated like it’s an actual adoption of a child, Tyson said.

The adopting family must write a mini biography of their family, complete an adoption home study and receive clearance from their physician that states the woman is healthy enough to carry a pregnancy to term. Unlike some fertility clinics that may divide anonymous embryo donations amongst multiple families on their patient waiting list, Snowflakes matches families based on specific preferences set by both the donor and adopting family. Preferences such as the adoptive family’s age, length of marriage, income, religion, ethnicity and their desire for future contact. At Snowflakes, they allow the donating family to decide if they want to have an open or closed adoption relationship.

Once both parties mutually agree upon the match, contracts are drawn and signed.

“In the U.S., embryos are considered property so we don’t use adopting law, we use property law. Once the contracts are signed by both families, the adopting family owns the embryos and then they can proceed with making arrangements with their fertility clinic for the frozen embryo transfer,” Tyson said.

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Joseph Davis, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, a division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Mount Sinai Hospital, said transferring an embryo is an office-based procedure that typically takes a few minutes.  

“We place a speculum much like a pap smear and through a very small catheter or straw are able to transfer a single embryo into the uterus under guidance of an ultrasound,” Davis, who did not work with Michelle and Michael, told

After the procedure is complete, couples hopefully find out that they’re pregnant two weeks later, he added.

"The success rates are going to vary depending on the original reason that the couple created the embryos and other factors such as age and so forth,” Davis said.

When couples undergo IVF, they can choose to have genetic testing done to screen for certain issues like whether there’s an appropriate number of cells or any additional or missing copies of genes that could potentially result in a miscarriage or a chromosomally linked disease.

“Other clinics and agencies may allow for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) but in Snowflakes we specifically, by contract, do not permit pre-testing of the embryos by the adopting family. This ties in to our philosophy that each embryo deserves an opportunity for the life for which it was created,” Tyson said.

For Michelle and Mike, the first transfer was a success. After 13 years of trying and at age 42, Michelle gave birth to their adopted daughter Elora in March of 2015.

“We sure felt like giving up a lot of times,” Michael told “But you get over the emotions of the moment and you pick yourself back up and say what's next.”

With the Snowflakes agency contract, the placing family gives all of their remaining embryos to the adopting family.  This arrangement allows the adopting family to potentially have multiple FET attempts and genetic siblings, the agency said. Michelle and Michael are now expecting Elora's genetic sibling in January 2017.

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