By JENNIFER FRIEDLIN
When Robin Peterson's husband, William, a claims examiner for
Marsh & McLennan, was killed in the attack on the World Trade
Center, she saw her dreams of having a baby die, too. But in
June, Peterson gave birth to a baby girl, thanks to a
relatively new procedure that enabled her to carry a donated
embryo to term.
" I still can't believe it happened," says Peterson, 40, as
her auburn-haired daughter, Cazzandra - a name William had
dreamed of one day calling his daughter - napped in her crib
at their home in Breezy Point, Queens. "After a lifetime of
wanting to have a child, this was a dream come true."
Since the late 1990s, some fertility clinics have been making
donated frozen embryos available to women as an alternative to
in-vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and adoption.
The embryos are generally donated by people who have undergone
in-vitro fertilization and have excess embryos they do not
plan to use.
The wave of the future is cryogenic embryos," said Bonnie
Bernard, agency director of Embryos Alive, an embryo donation
agency based in Cincinnati.
The Petersons had spent the months leading up to Sept. 11
trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant. They had been married
for four years, and were eager to start a family.
" We had redone the house, and we were baby-ready," Peterson
remembers. William's death was a staggering blow, but as she
mourned the loss of one dream, Peterson realized she didn't
want to give up another. She decided to try donated embryos
following an expensive, painful and ultimately futile round of
in vitro fertilization using donor sperm. After spending close
to $25,000 and undergoing painful egg extraction, Peterson
said she could not physically, emotionally or financially bear
She rejected artificial insemination - a procedure she felt
had too low a chance of success - as well as adoption,
worrying a birth mother might decide at the last minute to
raise the baby herself.
" I couldn't deal with the emotional roller coaster," said
Peterson. She kept searching for alternatives, because her
worst fear, she says, after all she had suffered, was getting
to the "should have, could have, would have" stage.
Donated embryos offered her a relatively inexpensive
alternative that gave her the chance to experience pregnancy.
Since embryos cannot be sold, Peterson had to pay only to have
the two embryos she received from an anonymous donor
transferred, thawed and implanted. With medication and
checkups, the total bill came to less than $8,000, a fraction
of the cost of in-vitro fertilization and many types of
On the first try, the two embryos were implanted, and one of
" I was lucky," said Peterson, who can't get enough of her
hazel-eyed miracle. "Everybody says 'My baby is beautiful,'
but this one was born beautiful."
A steeper path to pregnancy
Not all women who go this route will be that lucky. Although
there is no data on the number of donated embryos that have
resulted in live baby births, statistics indicate that frozen
embryos have a low rate of becoming viable fetuses and
surviving to term. According to a 2001 study by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 23.4% of thawed
embryos resulted in live-birth deliveries, compared with 33.4%
of freshly fertilized in-vitro embryos.
In New York, only people who have undergone infertility
treatment are permitted to donate embryos, so "the pregnancy
chance per embryo overall is probably somewhat lower than if
the embryos came from somebody who was perfectly fertile,"
said Dr. Norbert Gleicher, founder of the Center for Human
Reproduction in New York and Chicago and one of the first
infertility specialists to offer embryo donation to patients.
Gleicher and others who offer the procedure say they have
about a 35% live-birth success rate with donated embryos. He
said these physicians' rates of live births from donated
embryos might be higher than the CDC figures because donated
embryos tend to come from women who have had a successful
pregnancy, an indication that their embryos are healthy and
Embryo donation also provides at least a partial solution to a
problem other than infertility: the growing stockpile of
abandoned embryos. According to estimates, there are 400,000
frozen embryos stored around the country.
Scientific solution to a religious issue
Although people undergoing infertility treatment
usually sign agreements giving doctors permission to destroy
their embryos after a certain number of years, Gleicher said
most doctors are hesitant to do so without obtaining final
consent from the patient. In cases when the patients can no
longer be reached, doctors often opt not to do anything.
In 2002, Congress allocated $900,000 to organizations that
promote the procedure.
More than half of the money went to the Snowflakes Embryo
Adoption Program, a subsidiary of Nightlight Christian
Adoptions in Fullerton, Calif., arousing concern that the
government was trying to promote embryo donation as a way of
undermining support for abortion rights and stem-cell
Snowflakes and other religion-based embryo-donation
organizations use the term "embryo adoption" rather than
"embryo donation," underscoring their belief that life begins
at conception. Snowflakes does not permit couples to screen
embryos to determine which ones have the best chance at
surviving to term or of being born without handicaps.
" We give the embryos the opportunity, and if that's God's
plan for them" they will survive, said Laurie Maze, director
of Snowflakes. Over the past seven years, 65 children have
been born through the Snowflakes program. Of them, only one -
a child born with spina bifida - has had any kind of
irregularity, Maze said.
For people undergoing infertility treatment, any moral
quandary associated with creating excess embryos often takes a
back seat to the desire to conceive. When Elizabeth Devany of
Coronado, Calif., decided to try in-vitro fertilization
treatment, she says she and her husband wanted a child so
badly they never considered the consequence of having unused
But after her twin boys were born 4%BD years ago, Devany and
her husband did not want any more children. They considered
donating their remaining eight embryos to science, but decided
they did not want the embryos to be destroyed.
After a lot of thought, Devany and her husband decided to
donate their embryos to another family. "It took us three
months to come to grips with the fact that someone else would
have our children," said Devany, a 41-year-old Navy Reservist
who says she doesn't oppose either stem-cell research or a
woman's right to have an abortion.
Like Devany, Robin Peterson struggles with the thought that
her daughter has a different biological family - in fact, the
couple who originally created Cazzandra's embryo had used a
donor egg. She realizes that one day she will have to have to
explain to her daughter how she came into being.
But for now, Peterson tries not to think about it. After the
hardship of losing her husband on Sept. 11, Peterson and her
extended family just want to revel in this happy new chapter
in their lives.
" Cazzandra means 'helper of men,'" she says. "And she
certainly came through to help a family in grief."
* * *
Looking into it: A resource guide
For more on embryo donation and other infertility issues, the
following Web sites may be useful:
Center For Human Reproduction
(212) 966-4866 (Chinatown)
(212) 994-4400 (upper East Side)
Founded in 1981, the center's doctors are among the most
highly regarded in their field and have treated a wide variety
of cases. They also claim to have coined the term "embryo
National Embryo Donation Center
Based at Knoxville's Baptist Hospital for Women in Tennessee,
the nonprofit center is endorsed by the Christian Medical
RESOLVE: National Infertility Association
(212) 799-7400 (New York City)
(301) 652-8585 (national office)
Resolve has been assisting couples with infertility problems
since 1974, and offers counseling, supportand medical
resources. Their Web site also has a section just for men.
The site for this Ohio-based embyro donation agency offers a
brief but interesting history of embryo donation, an online
checklist for parents-in-waiting, and a separate
password-protected area on the site for embryo donors.