April 28, 2009
Clarifying rules for adoptions
By: Emily Bregel
At first, the idea of embryo adoption sounded more like science
fiction than reality to Wendi Parker.
“It kind of seemed like the Twilight Zone at the time, that someone
would put somebody else’s baby inside of me. That actually seemed too
bizarre for words,” said Mrs. Parker, 36, a Harrison resident who
first heard about embryo adoption in 2006.
But today Mrs. Parker is 25 weeks pregnant with another couple’s
embryo that was fertilized years ago in a laboratory dish then frozen
in cryopreservation storage.
That embryo was one of many donated to the Parkers by an Ohio couple
who had extras left over after completing their own in vitro
fertilization. The Parkers long had considered traditional adoption
after their first biological child was born and Mr. Parker’s
subsequent vasectomy. Embryo adoption gave her a second chance at
pregnancy while saving an embryo, she said.
“This child is going to get to live and have a life and would not
normally have had this opportunity,” she said. “I feel like the Lord
gave me a second chance to be a mom.”
The Parkers’ adoption was a simple agreement between two families and
a doctor, but Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers are proffering
legislation that would take embryo transfers out of the realm of
property law and into the realm of adoption law.
This month, the nation’s first embryo adoption bill passed the Georgia
Legislature and now is awaiting consideration by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The bill, dubbed the “Option for Adoption Act,” would be the first to
offer residents the option of getting court approval for their embryo
A bill in the Tennessee General Assembly would give added legal
adoption protection to adoptive parents of embryos, but it would not
require court approval to officially recognize the embryo exchange as
an adoption, said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Diane Black, R-
Many fertility experts, bioethicists, religious groups and adoptive
parents say connecting embryo donation to an adoption model raises
ethical and political issues, including the lightning-rod question of
whether embryos are children.
“The ideological point is if you talk about adopting an embryo, you
are playing to the notion that just like we adopt children, we adopt
embryos. It’s sort of a back door to the embryo-is-a-person argument,”
said Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the
University of Pennsylvania.
VENTURING INTO EMBRYO ADOPTIONS
In the United States, about 4,000 embryo transfers have taken place
since the 1980s, according to estimates from the National Embryo
Donation Center in Knoxville. The estimate includes embryo donations
coordinated with little fanfare directly through fertility clinics as
well as “adoption model” exchanges carried out more recently through
adoption agencies that have extended their reach into the realm of
embryos, conducting home visits and counseling parents on their
decision, said researcher Dr. Reginald Finger with the National Embryo
Though couples who have undergone in vitro fertilization have opted to
donate their embryos to other infertile couples since the 1980s, the
term “embryo adoption” became widely publicized in 1997 with the
launch of the Snowflakes program, which matches embryos with adoptive
Staff Photo by Tim Barber Matt Parker, left, Hannah Parker, 6, and
Wendi Parker sit at their kitchen table in Harrison, Tenn. The Parkers
are expecting a new baby, but this time is will come from a frozen
Bethany Christian Services of Greater Chattanooga, an adoption and
family services agency, began connecting couples who wish to transfer
embryos in 2006, said Peggy Lowe, director.
The Tennessee Reproductive Medicine fertility clinic in Chattanooga
has partnered with Bethany to facilitate embryo transfers. Bethany
arranges home visits for the “adoptive” couple to ensure a good home
for the child.
The exchange of embryos is treated like a traditional adoption,
despite being handled technically under property law in the state of
Tennessee, said Dr. Rink Murray, reproductive endocrinologist with
Donating embryos is “not an easy thing to do,” Dr. Murray said. “It is
giving up a potential child to a stranger. It’s nice to have adoption-
level protections” through Bethany.
Most embryo adoptions facilitated by fertility clinics don’t involve a
home study and may not involve as much communication between the
couples involved, he said.
IMPLICATIONS OF state BILLs
A contract required by the Tennessee bill would give the embryo
exchange the same legal protections as a traditional court-approved
adoption, Sen. Black said.
“We want to tie it into the adoption process so there’s consistency
all the way across the state,” she said, adding that the bill will not
be addressed in this legislative session to allow time to gather
feedback from a number of stakeholders this summer.
The Georgia bill, too, changes little about the outcome or procedure
of embryo adoption, which now by contract requires embryo-donating
parents to relinquish any legal rights to them.
But the “extra safeguard” of court-approved adoption officially brings
the language and legal protections of adoption law.
To classify the exchange of embryos as an adoption has implications
for the debates on abortion and stem-cell research as well as the
morality of creating excess embryos through the in vitro fertilization
process, Dr. Murray said.
“Moving embryos out of property law into adoption law is a very subtle
way of getting people to regard these as more like children,” Dr.
That is the implication, admitted one of the Georgia bill’s sponsors,
though he emphasized the bill does not define an embryo as a human.
“I make no bones about the fact that I am pro-life, but this bill does
not get into the issue of pro-life or pro-choice. It’s pro-adoption,”
said State Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville.
At the same time, he acknowledged that “the strong implication is, you
don’t adopt tables and chairs. You adopt a living human being.”