Just before Lucinda Borden became pregnant, doctors gave her a photograph of the embryos they were about to place in her womb. They looked delicate and vulnerable, like bubbles that might suddenly pop. “I could not take my eyes off the photo,” Borden said. “They looked so fragile to me.”
And yet, the embryos already had survived 18 months in frozen storage and a trip across the country to California. A couple at a Delaware fertility clinic had made more embryos than they needed to build a family. Unwilling to destroy the extras, they donated them to Borden and her husband, John, who were unable to conceive a child on their own.
Today, 17-month-old Luke and Mark Borden are part of a brewing debate over the human embryo. But not for the way they were born. Doctors have been quietly transferring embryos between willing couples for years, and experts say the number of resulting children could be in the hundreds.
The provocative part of their arrival came well before Lucinda Borden became pregnant. She and John submitted to criminal background checks, allowed social workers to inspect their home and asked friends to vouch for their fitness as parents--steps that would have been necessary if they had adopted not embryos but children.
The screening was not required by law, and it cost the Bordens $4,500. But by encouraging couples such as the Bordens to go through steps similar to adoption, conservative and antiabortion groups are trying to elevate the legal and moral status of the embryo in society.
Embryo transfers, in fact, are poised to become the next big battlefield in the abortion debate.
“I really believe that I adopted children--babies--and not some dot on the page,” said Lucinda Borden, an accountant and seminary student from Fontana who describes herself as a devout Christian. “At the moment they were created, they received a soul from God. I just adopted them at a very young stage.” Her embryo transfer and background screening were arranged by a traditional adoption agency that has begun working with embryos.
The issue raises some particularly thorny questions for abortion rights advocates. Some are open to laws that protect the children that result from embryo transfers. But they worry that those laws might undermine abortion rights.
In most states, a lack of laws regarding embryos has led doctors and lawyers to treat them like blood and body organs, which can be freely donated, or like cars and real estate, with ownership transferred by contract. Most fertility doctors talk of “embryo donations,” reflecting the view that embryos are property, not people. One prominent exception is Louisiana, where state law says a human embryo outside the womb has some of the same legal rights as a person.
Now, to the chagrin of abortion rights groups and some advocates for fertility patients, a growing number of antiabortion activists are calling for state adoption laws to cover embryos, a change that might give embryos the same legal status as children.
“The idea is that we buy and sell and donate property, but we adopt people,” said Samuel B. Casey, chief executive of the Christian Legal Society, a legal assistance network of Christian lawyers. Promoting adoption for embryos, he said, is part of his group’s effort “to win for the human embryo, step by step, a recognition of its humanity.”
In Wisconsin, antiabortion groups are backing legislation to authorize a study of embryo adoptions, with an eye toward putting adoption requirements into state law. In Washington, Kenneth Connor, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said requiring embryo transfers to be conducted as adoptions soon might become a legislative priority for his group.
Casey said the Christian Legal Society had tapped its network of lawyers to examine adoption laws in all 50 states. “We want to see if reforms are necessary so that in every state human embryos may be adopted in the same fashion that born children are adopted,” he said.
Even some abortion rights advocates believe that children born from embryo transfers deserve certain protections offered to those in traditional adoptions. In adoption, for example, the state makes an effort to ensure that children do not go to abusive homes.
And yet that same protection, if assigned to embryos, could help antiabortion groups one day build a case that embryos and fetuses have rights that supersede a woman’s right to abortion.
Advocates Fear Erosion of Abortion Rights
Similar concerns have surrounded “fetal homicide” laws, which allow prosecutors in many states to treat an unborn child as a victim in violent crime. “We’re worried that . . . a Supreme Court justice surveying the landscape will say there’s a new social consensus that recognizes that embryos are people and will use that to deny the right to abortion,” said Betsy Cavendish, legal director at the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
Despite the attention to embryo transfers, the procedure remains uncommon. Doctors say few fertility patients like the idea of allowing their embryos to become children in other families, and many fertility clinics report doing no more than one or two transfers a year. But that could change. With fertility services booming, thousands of patients each year are left with more embryos than they intend to use to build their own families.
The embryos are created as part of in-vitro fertilization, in which sperm and eggs are mixed in a laboratory dish in an attempt to create “test-tube babies.” Most often, the spare embryos are frozen in case the patients need them for another attempt at pregnancy.
But many embryos are frozen and never used. Patients sometimes have the extras destroyed. A small number donate them to research on embryonic stem cells, which may one day lead to new treatments for disease. Others make no decision at all, leaving their embryos in a frozen limbo. No one has solid numbers, but tens of thousands of embryos are thought to be sitting in cold storage at fertility clinics.
On both sides of the abortion debate, there is wide support for helping patients give their spare embryos to other infertile couples.
Congress this year set aside $1 million to publicize the option. And in several states, lawmakers have eased the way for transfers by clarifying who has parental rights when a child is the genetic creation of one couple but is born to another.
“But this is not adoption,” said Pamela Madsen, director of the American Infertility Assn., a New York-based patient advocacy group. “No one is giving up a bouncing baby boy or girl. That’s not saying that these cells aren’t important and sacred. But they’re not babies.”
She cautioned that if embryos gain greater legal standing, patients one day could lose the right to control the fate of their own embryos.
In fact, the most prominent force in the adoption movement is an Orange County agency that believes every embryo has an inherent right to a chance at becoming a child.
Since 1997, Nightlight Christian Adoptions of Fullerton has been matching people who have embryos with people who want them, an extension of its 40-year experience with traditional adoptions. Its work is controversial, partly because it requires a process similar to adoption for embryos and partly because of its conservative Christian philosophy.
To Nightlight, the thousands of fertility clinic embryos are like children locked in frozen orphanages. “Our No. 1 goal is to help the embryos, to put the question of whether the embryo lives or dies back in the hands of God,” said Ron Stoddard, the former corporate lawyer who leads the agency.
Nightlight also argues that by bringing frozen embryos to term it is showing why they should never be destroyed, even for stem cell or cloning research that may one day yield treatments for disease.
To Lori Maze, who supervises embryo adoptions at Nightlight, the proof of that argument is laid out on her office floor. Arranged in rows are the framed photographs of 11 children, including the Borden twins, all born from embryo transfers supervised by the agency.
“We’ve put a face on the human embryo,” Maze said recently, gesturing at the photos of infants and toddlers. “Our work proves that these embryos are in fact children waiting to be born. They deserve protection because they are human beings.”
In all, 52 genetic parents have been matched with 37 adopting families. Not every transfer to the womb results in a pregnancy.
Adoption Agency Deals Mainly With Christians
The Nightlight program, called Snowflakes, became known in the conservative Christian community after its first client appeared on the “Focus on the Family” radio program, which claims more than 7 million American listeners weekly, and in Christianity Today magazine. Today, about 80% of families who receive embryos through Nightlight are Christian, as are many who offer them.
“It was important to us that whoever adopted our embryos were Christians,” said Amy Weippert of Hutchinson, Kan., whose embryos, created with her husband, Dallas, were recently placed with a Georgia couple. “If you have a relationship with Jesus, it guarantees you a peace and happiness. I want my children--whether I raise them or someone else raises them--to gain peace and to have that relationship with the Lord.”
Nightlight also believes in “open” adoptions, in which the genetic and adopting parents exchange health and other information. The agency strongly encourages ongoing contact between the families, in case medical or emotional issues ever arise.
“We absolutely encourage that children know they’re adopted and know their history,” said JoAnn Davidson, a Nightlight staff member. “It’s who they are. It’s the core of their being.”
Lucinda Borden knows that feeling. She was adopted as an infant, and the identity of her birth parents was kept from her.
“I grew up with a mom who was terrified of me finding my birth parents and worried that I would choose them over her,” Borden said recently, as Luke and Mark wrestled in the living room for control of a stuffed animal. “That’s why I thought I would never adopt a child. I didn’t want to have the same scenario with my own kids.”
Even after struggling for years with infertility, she ruled out adoption. She tried to convince herself that John’s children and grandchildren from a first marriage were fulfilling enough.
In Touch, With Some Measure of Separation
Then in 1997 she made contact with her birth mother.
“Once I found her, I knew the fears of my adopted mom were unfounded and that I didn’t have to choose,” Borden said. Realizing that she could love both sets of parents helped open her to the idea of adopting a child herself.
The Bordens looked into several adoption agencies before choosing Nightlight, the agency that had placed Lucinda with her adoptive parents nearly 35 years earlier. Nightlight told them about the option of adopting an embryo instead of a child.
Lucinda saw it as a chance to become a birth mother, after all.
Nightlight matched the Bordens with Donna and Timothy Zane, a Maryland couple whose own journey through the maze of reproductive techniques had given them triplets--Amanda, TJ and Parker--and left them with six frozen embryos.
In January 2000, a Delaware clinic sent the six embryos by overnight carrier to a clinic near the Bordens. Three did not survive the thawing process. The remaining three were transferred to Lucinda Borden, who still mourns the fact that one failed to implant and grow.
The Bordens and Zanes opted to stay in contact during the pregnancy and beyond. When Luke and Mark were born, it was an emotional experience for the Zanes. They now had genetic children growing up on the other side of the country, and their triplets had a new pair of genetic siblings.
“Especially with the very first photographs, I was looking to see if these little boys looked like our own children,” Donna Zane said. “And they didn’t, and that was a relief.”
The Bordens and their twins have visited the Zanes and the families get on well. But Donna Zane is happy that they live on opposite coasts. “They’re raising their children, we’re raising our children, and there is a separation,” she said.
Both families plan to tell their children, once they’re grown, that they share a genetic history. If they choose to meet, that will be fine.
But while the Zanes and Bordens easily agreed on how to conduct the adoption, they have different views of the embryo.
The Bordens oppose the use of embryos in stem cell research and even argued against it before Congress last year, presenting Luke and Mark as part of their testimony. The Zanes, however, support research using embryonic stem cells, even though it ends the life of the embryo.
“We donated six embryos. We didn’t view it as six babies,” Donna Zane said. “We didn’t want to donate our embryos for research. But if some couples want to, then that’s OK.”