A colleague and I recently investigated embryo adoption as an emerging family-formation process. An important aspect of our research was chasing down the number of babies born from embryo adoption (also called embryo donation).
The numbers we found are far higher than what is usually reported.
For instance, in 2008 the Seattle Times and Detroit News ran articles saying that about 300 babies had been born from embryo adoption.
But our interviews showed that the documented number of births is considerably more than 1,000, and the true number is probably closer to 3,000. (Details below.)
My interest in embryo adoption stems from two trends:
• Human reproduction is advancing ever deeper into its brave new world. Who imagined that one day 500,000 human embryos would be "living" in frozen storage in the United States? Who imagined that one day couples with "extra" embryos would be able to donate them to other couples, who would thaw them, implant them and give birth to children who are theirs, mentally, emotionally and legally but not genetically?
• Federal data show that domestic infant adoption is dwindling. By 2002, fewer than 7,000 unwed women relinquished their babies at birth for adoption, even though the number of unwed pregnancies was nearly 3 million. In contrast, before 1973 and Roe v. Wade, about one in five single, white pregnant women relinquished their babies.
Embryo adoption has been promoted by the Bush administration and Congress (especially by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican), and $10 million has been spent promoting public awareness since 2002.
So it's time to ask the accountability question: How many babies have been born from this process?
The world's first "snowflake" baby, Hannah Strege, was born in December 1998, through the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program at Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Fullerton, Calif.
Ron Stoddart, Nightlight's executive director, said he can document 1,200 babies born from embryo adoption. When other fertility clinic births are added in, he said, the total number is "in excess of 3,000."
Another person monitoring the baby numbers is Dr. Reginald Finger, who conducts research for the National Embryo Donation Center in Tennessee.
All U.S. fertility clinics must report certain artificial-reproduction data, including source of embryos, number of pregnancies and outcomes of pregnancies, Dr. Finger wrote in a 2008 abstract in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
Using federal data and other reliable surveys, Dr. Finger said that in just three years (from 2004 to 2006), 9,131 embryos were donated and thawed. Of these, 5,959 were transferred (placed in a woman's uterus). About 920 pregnancies occurred.
Not all pregnancies made it to term. But of those that did, there were 753 live-birth deliveries, with a total of 988 babies born.
"No question, embryo adoption is increasing each year," Dr. Finger told me.
Our research turned up a lot of passionate theological, professional, legal and ideological opinions, pro and con, about embryo adoption. But if anyone is wondering whether embryo adoption is here to stay, I think we can safely answer yes.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.