A CHARITABLE CONCEPTION
'Extra' embryos donated by couples who no longer need
in-vitro fertilization have become a new source of hope
 
VWR-CryoPro-Canister-Storage-Tanks-CC-Series
 
A technician opens a vat of liquid nitrogen in which frozen embryos are stored

VWR* CryoPro* Canister Storage Tanks, CC Series

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 another round.
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 adoption.
On the first try, the two embryos were implanted, and one of them took.
" 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 viable.
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 research.
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 embryos.
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)
http://web.archive.org/web/20061113080441/http://www.centerforhumanreprod.com/
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 donation."
National Embryo Donation Center
1-866-585-8549
http://web.archive.org/web/20061113080441/http://www.embryodonation.org/
Based at Knoxville's Baptist Hospital for Women in Tennessee, the nonprofit center is endorsed by the Christian Medical Association.
RESOLVE: National Infertility Association
(212) 799-7400 (New York City)
(301) 652-8585 (national office)
http://web.archive.org/web/20061113080441/http://www.resolve.org/
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.
Embyros Alive
1-513-793-1593
http://web.archive.org/web/20061113080441/http://www.embryosalive.com/
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.
 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
http://web.archive.org/web/20061113080441/http://www.cdc.gov/
The CDC's online home has the results of several national studies on embryo donation success rates; try typing "embryo donation" into the search field on the home page and exploring from there.

Julian Kesner