Bake-at-Home Babies: Embryo Adoption and Me

Embryo adoption is a Real Thing That Exists.

We found this out in the fertility specialist’s office right after he confirmed what we’d been pretending we didn’t know for a few years: my husband and I are unable to make babies by ourselves. But, we wanted to experience the wonder and joy of pregnancy and birth (later, “wonder” and “joy” will be represented by “aches” and “vomiting”).

We weren’t necessarily closed to the possibility of traditional adoption, but we wanted to exhaust every option we had to go through the full experience of bringing a child into the world.

He runs through those options:

A) IVF: laughably expensive and won’t work with our specific fertility issue anyway.
B) Sperm donation: not for us — we were uneasy about having children who were only genetically related to one of us and any emotional complications it might cause.
C) “What about embryo adoption?” the doctor asked. “Uh…” we stared blankly at him, and he began to explain.

When people go through the IVF process, they have many embryos created — usually more than they will end up using. Some people decide that they do not want to destroy these excess embryos or donate them to scientific research, so they “donate” them to be “adopted” by other infertile couples. IVF is improving all the time; eventually it is believed that the process will be perfected to the point where only as many embryos as are needed will be created, so we were poised at the perfect moment in history to take advantage of this technology. The actual procedure is basically the same as IVF — drugs, drugs, drugs, doctor transfers embryos to uterus, drugs, crossed fingers, pregnancy — except the embryos are not your own, biologically speaking.

It’s sort of like, if you don’t have flour and milk to make your own bread from scratch, you get those bread rolls from the supermarket that are not quite fully cooked, then you take them home and bake them for like ten minutes and voila, perfect hot fresh bread. Bake-at-home babies.

The laws around embryo adoption are starting to catch up with the technology, but they differ from state to state. In our case, the adoption process was like a hybrid of contract law and regular adoption laws. The embryos cannot be sold (possibly because they count as human body parts, legally?), and the donors cannnot be compensated financially, so the actual giving from the biological parents to the adoptive parents is covered in a contract facilitated by the embryo adoption center, but because we are talking about potential human children being created here, prospective adopting couples must also go through a process to determine their suitability as parents (this is called an adoption home study) just as regular adoptive parents do. The adoption can be “closed” (no contact with the biological parents, and neither party gets much info about the other; the adoptive parents get a short medical history and basic physical info like height, eye color, ethnic background etc.) or “open” (negotiable amount/type of contact between the donors & the children).

The cost of the whole thing (adoption home study, transfer, drugs) varies depending on things like the state you live in, your health insurance coverage, and the center you use. It will probably be in the thousands, but nowhere near as many thousands as IVF.

Google is your friend.

We found the embryo adoption organization we wanted to go with pretty quickly. Many of the other websites were off-puttingly saccharine, referring to “snowflake babies.” At first I thought this was something to do with being unique and special snowflakes, but it turns out it’s because they’re from frozen embryos (get it? Snowflake. Frozen).

We were told that the success rate (of delivering a “snowflake baby”) is around 30%.

To me, the whole embryo adoption industry seemed to have a disturbingly religious aspect to it (full disclosure, I am an atheist who was raised Baptist). There is a lot of talk about giving these excess embryos a “chance at life.” Many people working in this area and a lot of the donating couples seem to be overtly “pro-life” fundamentalist Christians, and in my experience many seem to assume you must also be the same kind of Christian, although their website says they do not discriminate against anyone based on belief system alone. They will discriminate on another basis, though — the most disturbing side of this religious aspect is that currently embryo adoption is only available to legally married, heterosexual couples. They literally will not let you go through the process unless you are a straight, married couple.

During the adoption home study, our relationship, our home life, our financial situation, and basically every aspect of our life was picked over to determine our suitability as parents. We each had to answer 16 pages of incredibly personal, often invasive  and gut-wrenchingly emotional questions. A social worker visited us multiple times. To our relief, she pronounced us emotionally and financially ready for parenthood (HAHA. ha).

Embryo adoption guidelines vary a little from IVF. Embryo donation doctors will not transfer more than three embryos at a time, because they determine this is the maximum number to give the greatest chance of a successful pregnancy while not causing too much stress to mother and fetuses. So no chance of becoming the next Octomom.

They call it a transfer, not implantation, because there is currently no way to actually implant the embryos; they have to do it themselves. All the doctor can do is pop them up there on your uterine wall and hope they cling on.

Having chosen a closed adoption, we received via fax (!) about 30 profiles. They included basic information about the donor couples — height, hair/eye color, age (presumably at the time of embryo creation), ethnic/racial background — plus information on the number and developmental stage of their embryos. It is recommended to use embryos from the same group; this way all resulting children will be biologically related. If you choose to use a mixed group (from more than one set of donors), if/when a child is born you will be obliged to pay for genetic testing to determine which donors it came from. You might choose to use a mixed group if your chosen donors have less than three embryos, to have the highest chance of success.

All the prospective parents receive the faxes on the same day, so we had to make arguably one of the biggest decisions of our life via several frantic hushed phone calls (both of us at work) and reply back to the donation center as fast as we could in order to have the best chance of getting our preferred donors.

You will want to choose donors who have a large number of embryos because not all the embryos will survive the thawing process. Another reason is that you may not be successful the first time. You will be given up to three transfer attempts. If you are unsuccessful at carrying to term after three chances, the center will not do any more transfers as it is basically a waste of embryos (although they word it much more sensitively than this). If you do have a baby, and want to try for another child after that, you get three chances again, even if you were only successful on the third try.

Shortly after we made our donor choice, we drove for a million hours to the embryo adoption center (a few states away) so they could do a test transfer (no actual embryos involved yet) to determine if it is even worth doing the real one. I still have no concrete idea what the test transfer actually achieved/involved other than jamming things up my lady business and peering at them via ultrasound. For some reason, I had to have an extremely full bladder (to the point where I was squirming and the doctor was laughing at me; I feared for their carpeting) for this to work.

The doctor asked us if we were prepared for more than one baby, as this was common with embryo transfer pregnancies. We confidently said “Twins would be great! Triplets might be a little much, haha.” The doctor chuckled with us. Haha.

The test transfer was successful and we returned home happy and hopeful. Then came the drugs. It started with a daily injection in the belly. I did this one myself, until one time I jabbed the needle in a little too hastily and it bounced back out; a little red sphere of blood welled up, and I lost my nerve. I made my needle-phobic husband do the rest of them. Later, another daily injection was added. This one in my butt-cheek — he had to do this one for me as well, since I couldn’t do it to myself at the correct angle. I was warned that it might make me dizzy, but not that the first one would make me pass out and wake up a moment later on the kitchen floor with no memory of falling and my husband standing over me freaking out. It didn’t happen again, but they did hurt, because the needles are freaking huge. I was taking birth control (so the doctors will know exactly where you are in your cycle) and various other pills.

The magic happens.

The day before the transfer, we again drove a million hours to the embryo adoption center. Their instructions tell you to get a good night’s sleep, and that having sex the night before seems to increase the chances of ending up pregnant, for reasons unknown. The morning of, I took the Valium they gave me and drank a metric ton of water, as instructed. I smugly thought myself very well-prepared for having shaved my bikini area, given that there would be a doctor and several nurses looking at it and jamming things up there, but as it turned out they basically laughed at me and then poured sterilizing alcohol all over it.

After the transfer was done, they sent me to lie down in a hospital-style bed for a couple hours to give the embryos a chance to settle in. I think I must have slept for a while; my recollections are very hazy, thanks to the Valium. The doctor proclaimed the transfer a success; all they had to do now was hold on.

The nurse said something inappropriately religious as we left, but I was still too floaty from the drugs to respond. Then we were sent off with instructions not to leave town for 24 hours, and to not do anything even remotely active. This was fine by me, because nothing is my favorite thing to do, and the hotel had cable. The next day, we drove a million hours back home, and continued with the injections and pills and multivitamins, crossing all available fingers. We nicknamed our embryos the Limpets, to psychologically encourage them to hold fast.

We went to a local doctor for the nine week ultrasound. Lo and behold, three little dots appeared on the monitor, clinging to my uterine wall for dear life. The doctor said airily that one or two would most likely drop out between 9 and 15 weeks.

At 15 weeks, there were three little gummi bears on the screen. What have we done, I thought. Triplets might be a little much, we’d laughed. And the doctor laughed with us! But, we thought, three is definitely better than none.

From that point, the biggest difference between my pregnancy and a regular pregnancy (apart from the whole three-at-once deal) was that I had absolutely no idea what my children would look like beyond a vague prediction of possible hair/eye colors. Were their biological parents attractive or horrendous? I felt like a terrible person for fervently hoping the former.

Our triplets are now two years old, and as it turns out, they are startlingly attractive. We have our ups and downs just like any other family — just more of each — and I have a quiet giggle whenever anyone marvels over how they look just like you/your husband.

A Mom of Triplets credits the Hairpin with her remaining shreds of sanity.

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