Thursday, September 15, 2016

Personhood, Choice, and Embryo Adoption

I have this problem...which seems at first a semantic one but is actually way, WAY more than that.

We have placed our embryos for adoption, a process that officially ended the transit phase last week (so really, I shouldn't call them "ours" anymore). Many people cringe at the term "embryo adoption." There is a split with people in terms of calling this process embryo adoption versus embryo donation, and the split occurs down the line of Personhood.

Personhood is the belief that life begins at conception, and that this life should be given the legal, ethical, and moral protections under the law as any other fully formed human. According to the organization Personhood USA, the Personhood movement is defined as "a movement working to respect the God-given right to life by recognizing all human beings as persons who are 'created in the image of God' from the beginning of their biological development, without exceptions." Basically, once fertilization occurs, what you have is a human being with rights. Many states have introduced Personhood legislation, and all attempts, except laws in Kansas and Missouri (which fall under the umbrella of the US Constitution which does not ban abortion because Roe v. Wade is in place) have been voted down.

One goal of Personhood is that abortion would be criminalized, however it has other consequences as well. If a fertilized egg is a person with full legal rights and protections, then certain contraceptive options (the ones that prevent a fertilized egg from implanting) would be banned, IVF would be banned (who wants to take control of a lab full of "people" with legal rights? If an embryo fails to grow is the clinic liable for its "murder?" If, like in legislation introduced in Georgia, miscarriage is treated as a murder, what about failed cycles and miscarriages resulting from IVF?), embryonic stem cell research would be banned, and so on.

This is where things get sticky. I am not a fan of Personhood, globally applied. I fall under the category of Pro Choice. It doesn't mean I love the idea of abortions. It means that I feel that those are very personal decisions that should be made between a woman and her healthcare provider. Because I am Pro Choice, I am not behind Personhood. Personhood limits women's bodies and makes them a legal entity. While IVF did not work for me, I was glad it was an option. Under Personhood it would not be. Under Personhood I would be the perpetrator of 27 tiny deaths, the result of failed cycles and my two more palpable losses.

But, we have these embryos, and the option that was most appealing to us was the Snowflakes program of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a program that is steeped in Personhood, refers to the embryos as "pre-born children" and has adopting parents do a homestudy as if they are adopting a fully-formed child. The reality is, the actual contract for an embryo adoption falls under property law. Embryos are considered personal property and not potential children available for adoption because... Personhood is not a thing supported by the law.

How can I be against Personhood and for Snowflakes? Why am I willing to call it Embryo Adoption and not Donation? In my mind, donation is anonymous. It is a giving away without any expectation of information. It is an option that was available to us, but we wanted to know. Adoption is an agreement between two families to transfer the parenthood of these potential children from one couple to another, with the expectation of contact (for us, letters and pictures until 18 at a minimum), and the ability to know what happened and to choose the family the embryos go to. Maybe the two are truly synonymous, but Embryo Adoption brings up in people undeniable connections to Personhood -- you can't adopt something that's not a person (rescue animals and sections of highway are so NOT the same thing), so if embryos are adopted, they must be people, and what a slippery slope that is.

For us, we believe that THESE SPECIFIC embryos are potential children, children we personally couldn't bring into being. Because I have the glories of choice, I can choose to consider these embryos potential life without designating ALL embryos in that way. For me, each embryo that didn't become a pregnancy was a loss, a tiny death of potential. But that doesn't mean that I need EVERYONE to feel that way. I would feel differently if I hadn't carefully created these embryos on purpose, out of love and an overwhelming desire for family, embryos that were certainly wanted. I can believe that my embryos are potential children but not think a woman choosing abortion is committing murder. It's her choice. It is ending a potential, I don't think you I can separate that out, because if development was allowed to continue there would feasibly be a baby at the end. But I absolutely am behind another woman's right to choose that option if it is best for her.

This is why I had a difficult time initially with the contract for our embryo adoption. I felt like an idiot, because we had been sent a blank contract before we signed on and we had sort of skimmed it, and we missed two sets of verbiage that became problematic when it was time to sign. When we started the process with Snowflakes, I had a long conversation with an intake specialist, where I discussed my concerns with the Personhood aspect of the program, and that it is a very Christian organization and that we ourselves are not religious. I was told, "The Christian part of our name is about who WE are, not who our clients are. It says more about us than it does about you, and we respect your differences." WELL. It's not every day that happens, and I was really impressed with the openness that Snowflakes shared regarding their beliefs versus their clients' beliefs. That went a long way with both how we felt about going down this sticky road of Personhood-rife embryo adoption AND the fact that we preferred a couple that was on the more liberal side of religion if at all -- we wanted people who weren't fundamentally religious to raise "our" embryos. We felt like we wanted the children resulting from all this to believe that it's okay to be gay, that other beliefs are valuable and have something to teach, that evolution is a real thing, that being with other people who think differently than you is a good thing (I'm not saying that these things are exclusive from religion, just that many fundamentalist groups would not mesh well with our beliefs). And we were given that opportunity, no questions asked. I was super impressed with Snowflakes making good on their assertion that they would support our wishes even if they weren't necessarily in line with their own beliefs system.

But then we received the contract to review and sign, and it had this wording in it:

"The embryos are pre-born children who are endowed by God with unique characteristics and are entitled to the rights and protections accorded all children, legally and morally." 


"The parties believe that human life is created by God at the time of conception, whether in vivo or in vitro." 

Um, WHAT? I was a little taken aback, because I really didn't feel like either of these sentences had any legal merit to being in the contract, and were just a way to insert Personhood beliefs into the process. I wanted the entire second sentence gone, because it had no bearing on our decision to transfer ownership (relinquish parental rights) to the receiving (adopting) couple. We weren't going to sign something we didn't believe. I don't globally believe that, and the statement added nothing to the adoption agreement itself. The first one was trickier, because it was preceded by a sentence defining "the embryos" as "the embryos being transferred," and so I didn't mind some of the verbiage as it applied to THESE SPECIFIC EMBRYOS, but we wanted the legal piece out of there, the rights out of there, and the God part out of there.

I called Snowflakes, and went through everything with their contracts specialist. I am just continually impressed with how Snowflakes works with people who do not share their beliefs. It was kind of funny, because the specialist said that she knew we'd want to change some of the wording and expected my call but had to send the boilerplate contract over. She took the entire second sentence out, and whittled the first one down to something I was okay with. The term "pre-born children" was taken out here, but occurs elsewhere in the contract, and I was okay with that (especially since it refers to these SPECIFIC embryos), especially when it was explained that they wanted the contract to resemble an adoption contract rather than a property transfer contract, and so that's how they refer to the embryos. Potato, potahto.

I still feel like it is hard to explain how someone who will staunchly defend the right of other women to obtain abortions can put so much stock in tiny embryonic cell clusters. How even our 1-day embryos are being "adopted," and I mourned every failed cycle for the potential that was lost, the children I could envision but not bring into reality. It's a hard place to be, philosophically. My amazing therapist (who I've managed to FaceTime with since she moved away) wisely said, "I think that's the DEFINITION of choice." And it's true -- I can choose what's right for me, and someone else can choose what's right for them, and I am not forcing my beliefs on anyone else. I feel differently about things since going through our infertility journey, but it doesn't change my Pro-Choice stance. I am hoping to adopt, but I do not consider women who choose to have an abortion rather than go through a full-term pregnancy for the sake of adoption horribly selfish or see their abortions as potential babies that are lost to me. They are not actually related, in my mind. That would be like wanting to ban sex education and access to contraception so that there would be a greater pool of unplanned pregnancies that could result in a placement. It seems kind of loopy, to me anyway. I greatly appreciate the women who choose adoption for themselves, but also respect it as one (incredibly difficult) choice out of many (incredibly difficult) choices.

When we started our journey to have a family, I didn't realize how much I'd have to think on ethical issues relating to when life begins and the rights of embryos. I mean, we signed all the paperwork about what would happen to embryos if one or both of us died, and had hypothetical conversations, but as a couple who never had frozens at the beginning it seemed insane that we'd ever have "excess" embryos to worry about. But we did in the end, and I am ever so grateful that programs like Snowflakes exist. I am happy that OUR SPECIFIC embryos can find a home with another family, that they will get a chance to truly be, as to me they are little bundles of potential. I can't honestly say when I think life truly begins. I don't think that I personally could put a global statement out there and say definitively in every circumstance. I listened to an NPR program that had a salon-type discussion on abortion from half pro-choice people and half pro-life people, and it was a very, very respectful discussion involving listening on both sides. One woman's thoughts stuck with me. She said (paraphrased as my memory isn't quite THAT good), "We can't pretend it's not ending a life. Abortion is ending a life. It would have become something, and now it's not. Before I had a miscarriage, I pretended it wasn't a life, it was just a bundle of cells, nothing more. But then I couldn't have it both ways. I couldn't say for me it was life because I wanted it, and for someone else it wasn't. I can absolutely believe in a woman's right to choose and still acknowledge that abortion ends a life."

There is no easy conclusion to draw from all this. I loved the salon because it was people respectfully discussing a hot-button topic without getting nasty, and truly listening to all perspectives. I hope to have that same spirit in the comments here. If you disagree with me, I would absolutely love to hear your (respectful) thoughts. Embryo adoption is a beautiful choice, a way to give our embryos a chance to become people, to have a family, to get to experience this beautiful mess of life. But man, does it make you think on all the politics and ethical questions that wend their twisty way through all of the options in family building.


  1. Such a thoughtful, considered post about a divisive topic. The question of "donation" vs "adoption" of embryos came up in a parenting after ALI facebook group I'm in. One poster noted that it seemed to be religious organizations who used the term adoption and secular ones who used donation. This might be broadly accurate, but my clinic, for example, uses the term embryo donation but structures the process similarly to adoption (receiving families have a police check and a home study, and there are counselling services offered). The clinic doesn't have any religious affiliations. My impression in this case is that since demand outweighs supply, the process is probably in place to reassure donating families. There are also safeguards for the receiving families: genetic checks, age limits, limitations on what embryos are allowable (e.g. no ICSI or donor gametes). As you eloquently describe, many people feel more strongly about their embryos than "a bunch of cells." It makes intuitive sense that they would want that personal connection and reassurance, at a minimum. Personhood, man that's a minefield. I would never argue with a parent who feels their embryo, at any stage of development is their child. Also, I was that parent. On the other hand, it's painfully obvious that an embryo is not a baby: if it was, couples like you would have a baby in your arms right now. The process in between is kind of important. You are more comfortable with a postmodern perspective than I am: I want my core beliefs to be logical and universal, otherwise I feel like a hypocrite and an immoral person, which in my worldview is actually more serious than whatever political system happens to be in place at the time. So, what I struggle with in these issues is having consistency, which is very hard when there's so many realities at play. And the more technology and possibilities we have, the more complex it gets. I am glad you made this intelligent and humane contribution.

    1. I originally wrote this post in early's divisive for sure! I was nervous to post it. But, I think it's an important conversation. I agree that a lot of people divide embryo "adoption" vs embryo "donation" by religious lines, but somehow I can go with "adoption" without globally applying personhood. We had a hard time finding an embryo donation/adoption organization that WASN'T religiously affiliated. Your clinic's guidelines would kick us out on two counts -- all our embryos were ICSI and both sets contained different donor gametes. They do checks out the wazoo and we sent off all our donor materials and contacts for the clinic/cryobank where the material originated. As far as personhood, I wouldn't argue with a parent either that any stage of development would be considered a child. I draw the line when legality comes into the picture... I think emotionally is different than legally, because of all the implications to infertility treatments. Sort of ironic how issues are related to both abortion AND growing your family through ART. I loved what you said about it being hard when there's so many realities at play. Things used to be so black-and-white for me before I needed assisted reproduction and was coping with the ethical considerations of embryos that are homeless, and my feelings about my own embryos rather than hypothetical, abstract ones. I'm glad you think this is intelligent and humane! So hard not to think on these issues, intertwined as they are. :)

  2. I want you to know that I ask this question respectfully, and I apologize if you've already addressed it in previous posts. I'm just curious as to why you and your husband chose not to use a surrogate for your remaining embryos. I truly mean no offense. I was just wondering.

    1. Oh no, now I feel like I wasn't very welcoming to questions! :) No worries, although this is a complicated one. Surrogacy/gestational carrier is legally tricky in NY state. At the time that we might have considered it, we didn't have anyone that we knew who would be uncompensated and a good fit for us. We also never got a set-in-stone answer as to why this never worked for us, so when we exhausted donor gametes and my uterus's ability to build a lining, we decided adoption was our best choice. We did want originally to hang on to our embryos for a possible sibling after my body had rested, but the further we got from infertility treatment the clearer the lens we could see it through, and the less we wanted to go back down that road AT ALL. So, for us, if there was a couple who would take on our embryos and who might be able to carry them for their own family, that was the best alternative to us. Transferring to me was not going to result in anything but more loss (based on the 25/27 embryos that never got to implant and the 2/27 that did so briefly or in the wrong place) why not give them a shot with another family? It's a perfectly good question. I won't lie, I will be happy that the embryos finally made it if this other couple gets pregnant but then I will be left with questions...SHOULD we have tried harder to pursue gestational carrier? However, at the point where we ended treatment, we were so burnt on the process physically, emotionally, and financially (we needed to reserve money for adoption if it didn't work), that gestational carrier just wasn't an option with enough certainty to pursue. So adoption for us, and embryo adoption for the other couple who have received our embryos at their own clinic, to give our embryos the best shot at existence.

      I hope that answers your question -- I'm never upset to answer questions, even if I've posted before! :) Thank you for visiting!

  3. This is such a great post about a such a tricky topic. Like you, I'm pro-choice in the sense that I believe so many of these things are very personal decisions and people have to make their own choices (and that there shouldn't be interference in that choice). I've been in enough very grey situations reproduction-wise that I know I could never presume to make such a decision for someone else (or want laws that would effectively do so).

    That being said, like you, I have a tendency to view my embryos as...well, if not *people* as such, as "potential people". When my husband and I talked about what we would do if we ever had embryos left or what we would want done with our embryos if we both died, we both firmly did not want to destroy them - despite being against Personhood as a legal concept. Yep, a lot of tough grey areas.

    You do such a nice job here of exploring all those ideas and decisions and what went into yours. Thank you for being willing to discuss this - it's a really important discussion.

    1. Oh, thank you. This post literally sat in my drafts for weeks and weeks and weeks because I had to keep tweaking it and deciding if I wanted to put it "out there." I'm glad I did, but it's such a tough topic to do justice to and not sound judgy or inflammatory. ART really does do a number on your head space when you think on all these topics, but I totally think that you can think of your specific embryos as potential people, and when they are lost mourn them as that, without being a Personhood supporter. I'm glad you liked the post!

  4. I LOVE this. Most of our friends locally are very pro-life, because Texas, and I think I baffle them. I fully believe are lost babies were people, our children, even the early loss. I believe life begins at fertilization. But I'm pro-choice. I have actually been one to call THEM out on saying things like "when you become parents" or "when you have a child." For us, it comes down to negative vs. positive rights. We just don't believe anyone has a right to anyone else's body, uterus included, even if they need it to live. I love how open you have been to working with Snowflakes even though you have differing views to theirs, and their willingness to change the wording of the contract to make you comfortable. This topic shouldn't be so divisive. It should look like this.

    1. Oh, I LOVE your perspective! You put it into words so clearly. I love the idea of negative vs positive rights. Wouldn't it be so lovely if people could come together and talk calmly about this issue, like the salon, in a respectful manner and consider all the pieces to it? I'm so glad you liked this post! :)

  5. Hiya Jess, just catching up a bit late after being away!
    Interesting this idea of reconciling Pro-Choice beliefs with the ethos of Snowflakes. I would also not hold with the basic tenets of Personhood, and it's good that they are flexible enough to respect people's diverse beliefs and philosophies.
    I had embryos on ice myself and watched them all expire over one week a few years ago, but something in me felt it was too fanciful to see them as children, yet, or as 'people' with rights. I just didn't. I like how you describe them as 'little bundles of potential'; I agree that they are an amazing gift to give someone. 'Potential children', as you put it, is preferable to 'pre-born', for me.
    Like you, my infertility experience did not affect my Pro-Choice stance in any way at all. Personhood and most of the ethos of the pro-life stance definitely serves to limit women's control over their bodies; infertility did not make me any more sentimental about all that stuff.
    I don't know if I was too detached, or too pessimistic (believing I would fail IVF even before I started), but when an online IF friend told me to name my embryos and envisage them as children I just found myself unable to do that. I always felt a bit embarrassed comparing them in any way to real children. But that's just the way I am.
    Anyway, you deal with this topic very sensitively. As for your comment above about whether you should have tried harder to pursue a gestational carrier.. when looking back, we often forget that we had burnt out and reached our absolute limit: hindsight brings in doubts; I look back and think I didn't do enough, then remind myself that I was at the end of my tether and made the choice to stop because of how I felt at the time; how I feel now is irrelevant really.

    A great thought-provoking piece.

  6. I had to work really hard not to cry over this post. Very, very, VERY well-put.