Yes. You heard me. I said it, I said snowflake adoption (AKA: embryo donation), sounds weird, right? Everything about infertility is weird and..confusing…annnd uncomfortable, but it’s also really fascinating and science is sooooo incredible.
I hope you’re curious to learn more about embryo donation and maybe you even looked it up after my last post (which would be awesome if you did 😊), but honestly, we knew very little about it until 4 months ago. We originally heard the term ‘embryo donation’ when our IVF failed, one of the options our Reproductive Endocrinologist (fertility doctor) gave us was to get on their clinic’s embryo donation waitlist. They estimated a wait time of 2-3 years until we would be up on the list. My first thought was “holy shit that’s a long wait, I hope we don’t need this route” and my second thought was “yes, put us on there right away.” Like I said, we didn’t know a thing about embryo donation at that point, but we figured why not, we were feeling completely defeated by our failed IVF and the reality of experiencing pregnancy and childbirth was slipping farther and farther away. We’d do whatever.
So, what exactly is embryo donation and why would a couple donate? Embryo donation is the process of a 3rd party receiving a fertilized embryo from another family (or person) who has previously undergone IVF. *Note: embryos are a cluster of cells that form when egg and sperm meet, they have been fertilized and are in the beginning stages of making a baby. These blobs of cells are stored in a cryofreeze bank between days 3-6 of fertilization and they remain frozen until the family is ready for pregnancy. A large majority of couples who undergo IVF have more embryos than they need. For example: a couple completes IVF and at the end of their treatment they have 6 beautiful embryos with a high likelihood of resulting in 6 potential babies. The couple wishes to only have two children, and now have 4 perfectly healthy embryos remaining. They have three options for their remaining 4 embryos: 1) They can destroy them 2) They can donate them to science for research 3) They can donate them to other couples facing infertility to give them a chance at life. Side note: in the US it is illegal to receive any payment for embryos and is punishable by jailtime and major fines, hence the ‘donation’ part.
Had we successfully undergone IVF and had remaining embryos I would of, without a doubt, donated our remaining embryos to another couple. I do understand this could be a complicated decision for some families, since if the embryo donation is successful you literally have a biological child in the world being raised by another family. Decisions, decisions. I wish this was a decision we were stuck making.
Anyways, the great thing about embryo donation is that the donors have options, lots of options, and recipients have options too. The first and most important option for the donor and recipients are if they want to do an open or closed adoption. Most fertility clinics (like ours) will offer in-house embryo adoption with embryos created at their facility, but the catch with that is that it 100% anonymous. The donor relinquishes their right to pick a recipient, and the recipient gives up the right to know their donors. Obviously with the advancements of DNA websites like ancestry.com or 23andMe there is a high chance that one day the families will unintentionally connect, essentially making the anonymity pointless. There are also a ton of registries that donors, recipients and donor conceived children can search if they wish. My point is, the fertility clinic themselves will not (even when requested by both parties) release specific personal information about each other. The recipients receive just a health history on the donors, that’s it.
When we first learned about adopting embryos, we thought our only option was to go through our fertility clinic and wait the 2-3 years. About 4 months ago I stumbled upon an “embryo donation support group” and joined. What I learned in there blew my mind. There were other ways to adopt an embryo(s) besides the insanely long waitlist through our clinic. Who woulda’ thought there were other options, our clinic never mentioned other embryo donation programs to us, ever. Turns out there are a few websites and Facebook groups that allow a platform for donor/recipients to meet and match privately. Sayyyy whaaa???
In July after experiencing our third failed donor sperm IUI, we decided it was time to do this embryo donation stuff. We made a recipient profile and posted it in three places: Miracles Waiting, National Registry for Adoption (NRFA) and a Facebook group. I’d describe these websites like a souped-up dating website, recipients really need to sell themselves to find the perfect match, I mean, lots of writing about yourselves/lifestyles/family/etc. The goal is to paint a picture of what your family life would look like. We spent hours creating our profile and finding pictures that best represent us and our family. It was exhausting but we were hopeful we would get matched quickly. Fingers crossed!
As recipients, we were also able to scroll through donor’s profiles and message them if we felt like we’d be a good match. There were a few things we were looking for in our donors: 1) a family who wanted an ‘open’ adoption because I feel it is important for our future children to know their biological family and siblings 2) a family with more than 1-embryo because ideally, we would love at least 2 children, and 3) a family with similar socio-political views.
Looking at donor profiles was overwhelming, there were a ton of donors that absolutely did not meet our criteria and there was a handful that did. During the first week, I messaged quite a few that I felt met our criteria, and I heard nothing back from any of them that first week. Super disappointing. Then the second week went by and we got ZERO responses or messages again…I couldn’t help but think “what is wrong with us that no one wanted to even respond? I mean, we aren’t that bad, are we?”
Then one day on week 3 I got an email back from a couple in Florida that caught my attention on week 1. Whoohoo! Finally, a message back! They had 3 embryo’s they were looking to donate, we exchanged back and forth emails over the next few weeks to learn more about each other, they were a great match for us! We reached out to our 3rd party coordinator at our fertility clinic and she discussed the process of transferring embryos if we adopted privately, they had no issues with this and talked us through what we needed to do. Super exciting, this might happen! Right before I ended the phone call, the coordinator cautioned me about the storage facility where our potential donors embryos were stored. She informed me to expect a wait of about 6-8 months and spend around $3k to get the embryos released in our name. Are you serious lady…part of the draw to embryo adoption is the price, its much less then traditional IVF because all the leg work is already done and since the embryos are “donated” there shouldn’t be any costs for them.
So, I did what I always do, I logged onto the trusty internet and started my research to verify what she just told me. Damnit. She was right! This storage facility had a bad reputation for extorting money from couples that have already been through so much to start their family. The storage facilities fee was $2,700 for FDA testing on the embryos and required the donors to jump through multiple hoops for them to donate their embryos. This was not typical and other storage facilities do not require this testing, it was 100% a money maker for them. Disgusting. How can they get away with that?
Throughout the last 4 months, I loosely followed a support group for international fertility treatments that I had joined when we learned about embryo donation. It sounded slightly sketchy because it was so affordable (unlike in the US), so I didn’t give it much research, but it sounded interesting. After learning about the storage facility and their sheepish ways, I felt so fed up with the constant money hungry companies that take advantage of people here in the US, so I emailed a highly acclaimed fertility clinic the Czech Republic (Reprofit in BRNO, Czech). Less than 24-hours later I had a response from the coordinator educating us on their double-donor embryo program.
The double-donor embryo program in Europe is different than what can be offered in the US because of differing reproduction laws. To my knowledge, there are no fertility clinic in the US that can pre-create double-donor embryos to be offered as an option. In the US, the recipients would be required to fund the entire IVF procedure to use double-donor embryos. Each country in Europe is different, but in the Czech Republic, donors are screened and vetted well before they are eligible for donations and their financial incentive is very good if they qualify. A double-donor cycle means that the embryos were created by TWO separate donors, an egg donor and a sperm donor, they do not know each other, and the egg and sperm met in a petri dish to create that wonderful cluster of cells that will hopefully result in a baby! Donations are all done anonymously which is part of the law there. The recipients of the embryos get the following information about the donor: Age, weight, height, hair/eye color. That. Is. It.
Nick and I sat down over dinner at our favorite ramen noodle joint and created a pro’s and con’s list for both. The biggest con (and only) with international was that our children would not have the opportunity to know their biological parents. I can’t help but question if they will feel cheated, lost, and confused about their roots. Would this damage them for life? If it did, we would be fully responsible. Ugh. That’s huge.
On the flip side, we found a lot of pros: in the Czech our embryo would be genetically tested, giving us a higher chance of a successful pregnancy. It’s about a fraction of the cost of doing it in the US and…we get to explore the Czech Republic and surrounding areas. Frozen embryo transfer (FET) is a procedure we need done in the Czech, it only takes a few minutes and it is very quick and easy-essentially like a yearly pap, but they stick an embryo in your uterus and we go on our way. We technically only NEED to me in the Czech for a few days, but its recommended to give some wiggle room in case there needs to be some adjustments to the days of transfer or if anything happens to the embryo during thaw.
We also crunched numbers:
Estimated open embryo adoption in the US cost breakdown:
~$2,700 for FDA testing fee for embryos
~$500 for attorney fees for legal contract for “transfer of property” *Recipient pays donor’s legal fees too.
~$600 for storage fees
~$250 for shipping fee of embryos
~$1,500 for medication for embryo transfer
~$5,000 minimum for frozen embryo transfer
Estimated total: $10,550
Estimated double-donor embryo transfer in the Czech Republic cost breakdown:
~ $1,600 for embryo/transfer/all procedures
~$200 for medication
~$2000 for 2-round trip flights
~$400 for car rental/7 days
~$600-$800 for Airbnb/7 days
~$500 for food
Estimated total: $5,300
That night, Nick and I talked long and hard about what direction we wanted to go. The open adoption was not as important to Nick, honestly, he said he could take it or leave it, but he supported whatever I wanted to do. I had a complete internal struggle, going back and forth between here or there, my preference changed by the hour. It was exhausting, not only for me, but for Nick, because he had to deal with my indecisiveness.
That next week I had an appointment with my therapist, I talked to her about my fears of doing an anonymous double-donor cycle and my fear of our future children hating us for bringing them into the world that way. She helped me discover that I naturally go to the most negative outcome. That is what infertility has trained me to do. I constantly doubt that something like this could work for us, or that even one day we will get to be parents. Now I’m worried about the future and if our non-existent children will hate us? Maybe I am crazy. No, wait, I’m just infertile.
Nick and I discussed it and discussed it again and I changed my mind a few times back and forth, but I’m confident that choosing to pursue double-donor embryos in the Czech IS our best option. I had to send an email to the couple in Florida to let them know, they hadn’t officially picked us yet, but it was obvious that we were likely going that direction. She said they understood and to let them know if we choose not to take this route.
I completed an initial consult with the coordinator in the Czech and sent off all fertility records (over 150 pages) for the doctor to review to see if we qualify for the program. During the initial consult we were asked about donor characteristics that were important to us, so I clicked all the characteristics that match ours. I also added that I would be willing to waiver on some of those things if they could find us a curly haired donor. Sperm or Egg, I don’t care. Both Nick and I have long genes of curly hair and I’ve always daydreamed about a child with curly locks. Since the recipients get very little information about the donor, we are putting alot of faith into the clinic. Luckily they have endless amounts of personal info about the donors they sift through to fit our criteria.
One week later we received an email that said the following:
I‘m happy to offer you 1 genetic tested embryo with following characteristics :
Egg donor – 27 age; 0+; eyes: brown / hair: light brown; 165 cm / 60 kg ×
Sperm donor 21 age; 0+; eyes: green-brown / hair: brown; 184 cm / 75 kg)
If you agree so Dr. prepare you the treatment plan.”
*Insert happy dance*
On August 23rd, 2018, we agreed, we accepted this embryo. Our potential son or daughter. They are on ice waiting for us to fly over and plop them in my uterus. We are so excited and even a little hopeful. I honestly haven’t felt hopeful in a while, and the last time I allowed myself to it ended in a near panic attack after our 3rd failed donor IUI. It’s hard for me to let my guard down in order for hope creep in, but it always does. Sometimes I feel like this infertility journey is a dream, like I’m living in someones reality that isn’t mine. I don’t understand why it was Nick and I that had to have a story like this. It isn’t fair.
The through of flying to Europe to do this treatment also has me scared and anxious. What if this doesn’t work? How many times do we give this a try? How can I increase my chances of this working? What will people think? Will people think this is morally wrong? What will our child think? What if our child hates us? How will we incorporate the way they were conceived into their life story? I mean, the questions never stop coming.
So, its been 12 days since we accepted our embryo and 5 of those days we spent hiking in the Porcupine Mountains with some friends. I haven’t had alot of time to digest it all, but I AM excited.
This week’s plan is to book our flights to Europe! The clinic is flexible on the dates because part of the process is using birth control pills that control my cycle, so once our flights are booked they give us the official plan. We are thinking of going in November or December. If it were up to me only, we would be there tomorrow, but Nick has to work, and September and October are very busy for him. Boo, but what’s a few more months anyways?
Pretty crazy right? We’ve got a lot of things coming up in the next few months. It should be an interesting journey.