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Infertility affects about 10 to 15 percent of American couples trying to conceive, but options like in vitro fertilization (IVF) have allowed hopeful moms and dads to become biological parents. According to the American Pregnancy Association, about one-third of infertility issues relate to women, one-third to men, and the remaining one-third comprises a combination of fertility factors involving both sexes and unknown causes.
During IVF, eggs are surgically removed from the woman and mixed with sperm from the man. Once the egg is fertilized, it is then surgically implanted in the woman’s uterus. According to the American Pregnancy Association, the average cost of IVF is $12,400, and there is no guarantee the procedure will result in pregnancy.
To increase their chances of getting pregnant, couples may choose to create multiple embryos for multiple cycles, and freeze the ones they decide not to use. Currently, there are more than 600,000 frozen embryos in storage across the United States—a statistic that presents a unique opportunity for Snowflakes Embryo Adoption, a program run by Nightlight Christian Adoptions in which couples can donate their unused embryos to an adoptive family of their choice.
“We have so many people that donate to our program because they get to choose the family that receives the embryo donation,” Kimberly Tyson, director for Nightlight Christian Adoptions, told FoxNews.com.
Each donor provides three generations worth of medical information as well as preferences for the adoptive family to the counselors, who work to match them with an adoptive family who has also provided preferences for their donor. The donor can review a prospective adoptive family’s information without the family’s knowledge, and the donor has the choice to either proceed with the process or turn down the family.
Once a match has been made, the donor signs a legal property agreement relinquishing the rights to the embryos. A large part of the process involves determining how many children the adoptive family is interested in and can afford to have.
“We’re not going to match them with a donor who has 20 embryos if they only want one child,” Tyson said. The reason behind this logic is Nightlight believes in keeping the family’s genetics as close as possible. The program also encourages an open adoption plan, so that the children from both the donor and the adoptive families have relationships with full genetically-related siblings.
“I think the appeal of the openness is two-fold— it’s, one, that they want to know what is occurring with the embryos, are there children born from these embryos, and that they have children that are genetically related to these children fully,” Tyson said.
While the program encourages openness between the two families, the families can choose just how much they want to communicate.
Tyson said that openness typically progresses over time— a marked difference between domestic adoption, in which young mothers may lose interest in keeping contact with their birth children over time.
The program provides training for both the adoptive and donor families on how to explain the process to their children and how to determine boundaries. Snowflakes Embryo Adoption also encourages parents to begin talking to the children early in life about how they arrived in their family to give ample time to determine what kind of terms are best to use.
“When a child is adopted at a very young age, or when they were born, if they’ve always heard about their adoption story, it becomes less of an issue because they always knew they were adopted,” Tyson said.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BIRDS AND BEES
The Trabun family in Dallas, Tex., has four children— three of which were born via the seven embryos they adopted— and purchased a book for their oldest son, 4-year-old Cade, to help explain how he arrived in their family.
“We have a book for Cade called ‘The Story of Cade,’ and it kind of lays the whole thing out,” Christy Trabun told FoxNews.com.
“’Mom and Dad wanted to have kids and we weren’t able to, and then we heard about the Snowflake Program,’ and then it explains it in an age-appropriate way,” she said. The book also includes pictures of their social workers, an ultrasound, photos of the birth, and Cade’s genetic siblings, who live with the donor family.
Cade was later joined by a brother Gage, 3, whom the Trabun’s conceived naturally, and 6-month-old twins Coen and Shiloh, who were also the result of the embryos they adopted. Gage and the twins are full genetic siblings, while Gage is genetically related to mom Christy and dad Mike.
“We’re always talking about it and we’re sharing about it to the point where we have “The Story of Cade,” and our son Gage loves that book because it has pictures of his family in it, so I just had to make him a “Story of Gage.” While the Trabuns haven’t met their donor family in person yet, they do exchange gifts of birthdays and regularly email.
“It’s been helpful because when she describes certain attributes in their children, I feel like I’m envisioning my son as a 7-year-old. It’s kind of cool from that standpoint,” Trabun said. It has also helped from a medical standpoint: After one of the children in the donor family developed milk sensitivity, Trabun was able to recognize the same symptoms in Cade.
ONE, BIG FAMILY
While some friends are shocked that the Trabuns are so open with their donor family, Christy compared it to identical twins being separated at birth and never having the opportunity to know about another person who is just like them walking around.
“To find that out and to be able to talk and communicate, what you have in common, I would want to know that if I were in [Cade’s] shoes and I would want to be able to be offered the opportunity to explore that and be on that,” she said.
The Trabuns aren’t sure what kind of relationship their children may want with their genetic siblings, if any, but Christy said both families agreed that they wanted to at least offer their children the opportunity to have one.
For the Gassman family in Oregon, their relationship with their donors reaches beyond immediate family. Kelli and Dan, who adopted 11 embryos from a family in Virginia and now have a 2-year-old son Trevor and a 1-year-old daughter Aubrey, recently had an overnight visit with their genetic family.
“Chris and Becky, our genetic family, they have all met all of our parents. We have not met any of their parents yet, but I am Facebook friends with Chris’ dad, so he’ll periodically send a message— and I would anticipate that we will meet their parents in the years to come because again, it’s like being grafted into a family tree,” Kelli told FoxNews.com.
“We have kind of been adopted into their family and vice versa,” she said.
While Trevor is too young to fully understand the logistics, the Gassmans regularly Skype with their donor family and identify their three daughters as his sisters.
“He does have a concept of that, and periodically we’ll show him pictures,” Dan told FoxNews.com.
“One of the things that’s been very good in our relationship is boundaries that they had, and didn’t push,” Dan said. “We didn’t feel pressured, and that was really good and healthy.”
'THIS IS MY SON'
The Trabuns and Gassmans would recommend considering embryo adoption to couples struggling with infertility. Mike, who has children from a previous marriage and hadn’t heard of embryo adoption until Christy told him about it, said he was initially concerned that he wouldn’t feel that same connection to Cade as he did his biological children.
“I remember palpably how I felt when my first son was born. I remember that moment as if it’s a movie playing in front of me, and I wonder if I’m going to feel the same way when this child is born,” Mike said. “And I think that it’s a normal, natural thing as a human to think about, and I can tell you, I felt absolutely the same.”
“This is my son— he’s not my DNA, but this is my child,” Mike said.
“While it’s not the easiest way to go about building and adding to your family, in our minds, this is a segment of society that people don’t even consider,” Christy said.
For the Gassmans— who watched friends go through the process of traveling to the hospital to meet their child only to have the biological mother change her mind— the decision came down to whether their child would either be genetically related to both of them, or neither of them.
“There were a couple of factors,[but] getting to experience pregnancy was the number-one thing that attracted me to this option,” Kelli said. “Another key ingredient was the fact that we get three generations of medical history: My sister is and my mother is BRCA1 and (BRCA)2 positive.”
One of the deciding factors for Dan, who works in a juvenile correction center, was that in traditional adoption, often parents don’t know what kind of prenatal care the mother received.
“As we read through all the aspects of embryo adoption for us, it was kind of the perfect solution to everything we were looking for— she wanted to be pregnant, I was concerned about prenatal care. It was every one of our concerns on the infertility end and adoption,” Dan said.
From the initial 11 embryos the Gassmans adopted, five remaining embryos are being put up for adoption again. They completed legal paperwork, signing the embryos back over to their donor family, and are now involved in the process with them as they look for an adoptive couple with whom they’ll be matched. The process is a first for the program.
Snowflakes Embryo Adoption began in 1997, and since its inception, more than 400 babies born through the program.