DONATING embryos for adoption may seem a logical choice for people with leftover embryos, but few choose to do so. Leanna Wolfe, 55, now understands some of the obstacles.
The Los Angeles woman, a professor of anthropology at L.A. Valley College, decided at age 51 that she would try to have a baby. She found both egg and sperm donors among people she knew. Twelve embryos were made, and Wolfe underwent embryo transfers twice, but both cycles failed.
She ultimately decided to abandon her efforts to become a single mother, but she had two embryos left in cryopreservation. She consulted the egg and sperm donors, and the three had several long conversations about what to do with the two embryos that belonged, in some sense, to all three.
"We are all friends," Wolfe says. "Initially, I thought of donating to research. But they encouraged me to try to have them made into babies rather than used for stem cell research. All of us were interested in a baby. To donate to research seemed kind of depressing. The financial and emotional effort that went into this made them seem so valuable."
She had no idea how difficult the donation and adoption process would be.
When embryo adoption became available about 10 years ago, infertility doctors and medical ethicists thought it would help many couples resolve the dilemma of leftover embryos. That doesn't seem to have been the case.
"It's not without problems," says Dr. Richard Paulson, chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at USC. "We thought this was going to be a solution. It is not."
In uncertain territory
Donating for adoption is fraught with emotional, legal and health issues, says Lois Uttley, director of the MergerWatch Project, a patients' rights organization based in New York.
"Your child could be raised by another family," she points out. "There could be legal implications down the road and complicated feelings about it."
There are few reports of legal complications emerging from embryo adoption. But it's still new terrain, says Nanette Elster, director of the Health Law Institute at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago.
"The option to donate to others is something that poses its own risks legally," she says. "The risk is that the adoption laws we have in place don't necessarily apply."
In most states, embryo adoption falls under laws governing the transfer of property. But this is an unsettled area of law, Elster says.
For example, donated embryos brought to term by another couple are still full genetic siblings of the donor couple's children. "If they are aware of that, what kind of relations should they have? What about inheritance rights?" she says.
Only a handful of states have enacted laws specifically governing the fate of embryos, she says. California doesn't have laws specific to embryo adoption. In Louisiana, however, the law states that the embryo is defined as a person and that disputes involving the embryo must be resolved in the embryo's best interests. Oklahoma law requires doctors to file written consents from the donors and recipients with an adoption court, and in Texas, the law states that a donor is not considered a parent.
Couples who wish to donate to another couple also must verify through medical tests, according to federal health and safety laws, that their embryos are viable -- in other words, have a reasonable chance of producing a baby -- and that they are free of any genetic and communicable diseases.
Those who have used donor eggs or sperm to create embryos face extra hurdles should they wish to donate the resulting embryos to another person. Federal health law requires that gamete donors undergo blood tests for potentially communicable diseases before the donation.
Wolfe's egg and sperm donors completed those safety requirements. But Wolfe rejected using an embryo adoption service because many of those centers have restrictive criteria about who can adopt an embryo, such as requiring that the parents be married heterosexuals. Instead, she set about trying to find a potential parent for embryos via the Internet.
After three years and negotiations with five women, Wolfe has found one who is considering adopting the embryos and who would honor Wolfe's request to be a godmother if a child is born.
"I thought the moment I put them up for adoption, they would be snapped up in a second and everyone would be so happy and relieved," Wolfe said. "I had no idea it would be so complicated."