Excess Embryos: Families Are Now Adopting Unused Embryos Leftover from IVF Treatments

The practice is relatively new and touches on complicated legal and ethical issues


Right now, there are over half a million embryos in cold storage from IVF treatments, unused by the families who generated them. And, as Daniela Hernandez reports for Fusion, a few organizations have hit upon a way to capitalize on those excess embryos that is reshaping what a family can include by encouraging couples to donate their unused embryos to families looking to have children. "The embryo adoptions have led to a new kind of extended family," Hernandez explains, "where the ties that bind are the genetics of the children who developed from a common batch of frozen embryos, and a warping of time, due to cryonic interludes of as long as two decades in some cases.​"

While sperm and egg donations still remain far more popular, if both members of a couple have fertility issues, embryo donation can be an option. Hernandez reports that the two largest companies responsible for facilitating these embryo donations say they’ve enabled more than 900 children to be born this way. The agencies tend to be explicitly Christian or attract families who are. Since donor families choose the recipients of their embryos, same-sex couples, single and agnostic people can find it difficult to find a match. And some of the smaller agencies that don’t rely on federal grant money are able turn away same-sex couples outright.

But in some ways, the practice may give another group of people access to reproductive technologies they couldn’t afford. Hernandez writes:

The families and agencies I spoke to saw embryo “adoption” as a great equalizer—a chance for aspiring parents to start families and experience parenthood in full, pregnancy included. The process can cost from a few thousand dollars to over $20,000. That’s expensive, but cheaper than going through IVF, where embryos have to be made from scratch.

In the U.S., one average cycle IVF treatments, which may or may not result in a pregnancy is at least $20,000, a conservative estimate from Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy for Forbes

But while it might win the financial argument, embryo adoption has a host of other issues, Hernandez reports. For example, the legal issues created in drawing up contracts involving embryos — exactly how states classify embryos, whether as tissue or non-living persons or somewhere in between, makes things complicated. But she also wonders what this trend may mean for the families whose children are genetically related. 

Check out the full feature for these explorations as well as the stories of families who are experiencing the results of "embryo adoption."

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