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A Fragile Gift

Two years into their marriage, CMDA member Dr. Adam Lewis and his wife, Kim, decided it was time to have children. Their high hopes soon descended into desperation, an experience shared by over two million couples in America who face the challenges of infertility.

Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2005

Two years into their marriage, CMDA member Dr. Adam Lewis and his wife, Kim, decided it was time to have children. Their high hopes soon descended into desperation, an experience shared by over two million couples in America who face the challenges of infertility.

“After several months of no success, I went to the doctor,” Kim recounts. “I was told I had premature ovarian failure, and that I would never have children unless I went through IVF cycle with an egg donor. Of course, we were devastated. I mean, our dream since we’d met had been to have a big family.

“So we went through several years of struggling with infertility. When you’re told you’ll never have children, it is a heartbreak. It took a while for us to grieve over that loss. And then we eventually came to the point where we were ready to start considering adoption.”

Life-honoring clinics

Their local IVF clinic actually offered embryo adoption, but the Lewises instead opted for the services of the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC). In 2004, the Christian Medical Association helped launch the NEDC, which upholds the sanctity of human life in all its stages.

“A lot of the problem with other programs,” Kim explains, “is that they view the embryos as tissue. We loved the fact that at the NEDC they were viewed as children and it was an adoption process. We actually went through the whole home study process with Bethany Christian Services.”

Established over 60 years ago, Bethany Christian Services carefully screens and prepares adoptive parents like the Lewises for their new stewardship.

“Our role in working with adoptive families,” explains Bethany Adoption Case Worker Nancy Lesslie, “is to be sure that they are ready to receive a child by adoption—through education, completing their family assessment and insuring that they’re ready in every way to receive a child that is not genetically related to them. The legal process is different from traditional adoption, but the emotional process and the relationship process are very much the same.”

Adam Lewis, a Family Medicine physician practicing in northeast Tennessee, strongly desired an approach that upholds the inherent value of early human life. “A lot of physicians feel that those embryos are just tissue,” Adam acknowledges. “But my belief is that once fertilization occurs, there is a life there. Through the National Embryo Donation Center, there is a tremendous thing going on where we can save some lives, where we can make a difference for a lot of these embryos. A lot of politicians right now seem to think that it’s tissue for political gain, but there’s more here—there’s a life for each embryo.”

Life worthy of life

In 2003, an article in Fertility and Sterility1, a publication of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, estimated that over 400,000 human embryos remained frozen in U.S. fertility clinics, with 87 percent of those embryos reserved for ongoing attempts to have a baby. A study of 217 in vitro fertilization clinics across the country, reported in January 2005 by the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, noted that fertility clinics vary widely in what they do with frozen human embryos from IVF procedures who are not implanted into a mother.2

“The reports reveal the tragedy that clinics freeze many more human embryos than they ever intend to implant in mothers,” observes CMDA Executive Director David Stevens, M.D. “At the same time, the report also highlights the hope for parents waiting to adopt embryos.”

CMDA Associate Director, obstetrician-gynecologist Gene Rudd, M.D., notes that to resolve the problem of so-called “excess” embryos, CMDA has “called for parents undergoing reproductive technologies to allow the in vitro process to produce only the number of embryos they are committed to implant now or later, regardless of whether successful pregnancy is achieved early in the process. Our embryos are no less our responsibility than our born children.”

Giving birth to a vision

With that vision in mind, CMDA assisted the Southeastern Center for Fertility and Reproductive Surgery in Knoxville, Tennessee in establishing the National Embryo Donation Center. Dr. Stevens recalls, “We envisioned a high quality, scientifically and ethically sound way to help ensure that none of these invaluable human beings gets discarded or sacrificed for research.”

Jeffrey Keenan, M.D., who serves as Director of the Southeastern Fertility Center, has over 20 years of research and experience in obstetrics, gynecology, reproductive endocrinology and infertility. “The Center offers life-honoring parents and prospective parents an ethical, compassionate path to bringing a new life into the world,” Keenan says.

Technical expertise

The Baptist Women’s Hospital helps facilitate embryo adoptions through the NEDC, and the Southeastern Fertility Center also provides medical services. Embryologist Carol Sommerfelt, B.S., T.S., oversees the physical transfer and performs the thawing of embryos at the Center.

Carol explains, “My role involves thawing the embryos and then culturing them to the stage where they need to develop to be able to be placed back into the couple who will be receiving them to achieve pregnancy. The embryos are frozen in liquid nitrogen, so they have to be thawed at a particular rate. And when an embryo is frozen, a cryo-protectant is used to maintain the embryos so they don’t degenerate during the process of freezing.

“We have to be able to remove those chemicals through different stages and then place them into a media so they can grow and be viable,” she continued. “And then once we’ve had them in the incubators and they’ve grown, right before they’re transferred, we do a micromanipulation procedure called assisted hatching. We put a hole in the zona pellucida around the outside of the embryo, so when it is placed back into a woman’s uterus and it’s time for that embryo to hatch out of its shell and attach to the uterine wall, it has a better chance of doing that. So we want to help it along and improve our chances of that embryo becoming a baby.”

Building a culture of life

Following the directive of Congress, in October 2004, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded four competitive grants, including a grant of $304,000 to Baptist Health Systems (BHS), to promote public awareness of embryo adoption. BHS is carrying out the public awareness campaign with CMDA, the National Embryo Donation Center and Bethany Christian Services.

A Harris Interactive poll showed that 63 percent of Americans approve of donating embryos currently in storage to help infertile couples have a baby. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) puts the number of women ages 15-44 with impaired ability to have children at 6.1 million, and the number of women using infertility services at 9.3 million.3 Yet 75 percent of the general public diagnosed with infertility said they did not receive enough information about embryo donation to make an informed decision.4

That lack of public awareness means adoptive couples must explain the option to friends and families.

“People at first are curious,” notes Jennifer Ayers, an embryo-adoptive mother who along with husband, Matt, learned about NEDC’s program from a Focus on the Family radio broadcast. “But, when you explain, they realize you’re saving a life when you do this. They’re like, ‘Oh, great—keep us informed, let us know what we can do.’”

Once the couple learned of the option, they carefully considered the ethics of embryo adoption. Matt relates, “I came to the point of accepting medical technology and how God has gifted Christian doctors and given them the ability to save what is a living embryo.” Matt was also motivated “to actually be able to give Jennifer the possibility of carrying a child and being able to experience those nine months of bonding.”

Eyes of faith

Adam and Kim Lewis experienced a difficult but ultimately rewarding journey from infertility to embryo adoption to pregnancy and parenting. “I can look back now over the last two hard years,” Kim explains. “I was so distraught and distressed. It almost became a depression for awhile. And I can look back now and say, ‘Thank you; I’m glad I went through that.’ It was all worth it. These are our children. And it we hadn’t experienced infertility, we wouldn’t have these babies.”

Adam relates, “God has brought us this far by his grace. We know that by his grace we’re going to go on.”

What you can do

Learn more. A variety of information can be accessed on the Internet, including the following examples:

Or, call your local fertility specialist to see if these services are available in our area.

Educate your patients. For free educational materials for yourself and your patients, contact the National Embryo Donation Center at 1-866-585-8549 or Bethany Christian Services at 1-800-BETHANY.

1. “Cryopreserved embryos in the United States and their availability for research,” Fertility and Sterility, Vol. 79, No. 5, May 2003.
2. Andrea D. Gurmankin, Dominic Sisti, and Arthur L. Caplan, “Embryo disposal practices in IVF clinics in the United States,” Politics and the Life Sciences, September 2003, 22:2, pp. 4-8.
3. “Fertility, Family Planning, and Women’s Health: New Data From the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth,” Series 23, No. 19, Vital and Health Statistics, CDC publication, May 1997., summarized on CDC web site
4. Harris Interactive poll sponsored by Resolve and funded by an HHS grant, published in a Resolve press release, “Many Americans In Favor Of Embryo Donation Yet Big Need For Donation Education,” October 14, 2003.

This article was produced and distributed with funding support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under grant 1 EAAOP002100-01. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and CMDA and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department.

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