“How many embryos could we adopt?”
As the tears rolled down Marlene Strege’s face, the unconventional words tumbled out of her mouth. The year was 1996, and nobody had ever asked her doctor that question before.
Marlene and her husband John had already tried fertility treatments when Marlene was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure, a condition in which the body stops producing eggs regularly. They were already “uncomfortable” with trying IVF due to moral and ethical concerns. So the couple was ready to try something unprecedented.
At that time, embryo cryopreservation was already more than a decade old and thousands of embryos were sitting stagnant in liquid nitrogen. Most of them were likely never to see the light of day. So after weeks of discussion with trusted pastors and ethics leaders, the Streges felt that adopting some of these “frozen orphans” was the right thing to do.
“I had to find out what God thinks about this because I have to stand before God someday and give an account of my life, and my infertility doctor is not going to be standing there with me to tell God ‘Oh, yeah, well, we used a donor,’” Marlene told The Federalist.
It was then that the Streges partnered with Ron Stoddart of Nightlight Christian Adoptions to pioneer an embryo adoption program with the same requirements as domestic adoption, including a home study, background check, social worker visit, and adoption education classes. The only difference was families like the Streges would not receive an adoption decree from a judge because, to this day, the legal status of frozen embryos is property, not people.
Choosing embryo adoption cost the Streges their original doctor and their health plan, but by 1997, the Streges were matched with a Christian family who was willing to put 20 of their embryos up for adoption and Fed-Ex those frozen preborn children across the country.
“The family had three days to change their mind just like a birth mom does. And there was an adoption contract between us and them. Once that three days was up, those were our children,” Marlene said.
John and Marlene found a doctor who was also concerned about the ethics of serial embryo creation and was willing to transfer the lives to Marlene’s womb. Six of the 20 embryos survived the thawing process and were placed via two separate transfers. Only one of those six, a baby girl, implanted.
The Streges were overjoyed. Marlene recounted:
I got to experience everything. Morning sickness, I had childbirth, I got to nurse her, I got to do everything — and it was just so cool. I got to feel her the first time she kicked. It’s so vivid in my mind. I just would cry because I never thought I’d ever get to feel it. This is a dream come true for women, that you can carry and give birth to your adopted child.
After nine months in Marlene’s womb, Hannah, the Streges’ daughter, became the first child ever to be born of embryo adoption.
“We tell Hannah that she’s adopted into our family, just like Mommy and Daddy and her all adopted into God’s family because of what Jesus did on the cross,” Marlene said.
Her parents and Nightlight’s new embryo adoption program started calling Hannah a “snowflake baby,” a nickname that pays homage to “her origins as a tiny, frozen, yet utterly unique human being.”
The Pro-Life Conversation Starts Here
Today, more than 1 million embryos still sit “abandoned” in freezers all around the United States. It’s a problem many parents, fertility facilities, and the media acknowledge but fail to do anything about. For Americans who believe life begins at conception, there is only one solution: embryo adoption.
Ever since 1997, organizations such as Nighlight’s Snowflake Embryo Adoption program have given preborn children indefinitely doomed to frozen orphanages a chance at life.
“We believe that life begins at conception, and so we believe that each of those little frozen lives is a human being that deserves an opportunity to be born,” Snowflakes Embryo Adoption’s Vice President Kimberly Tyson told The Federalist.
To increase their chances of a successful pregnancy, parents who create life in a lab via in vitro fertilization often end up with more embryos than they plan to implant. Those leftover human lives can be either frozen indefinitely as long as someone is willing to pay, discarded, handed over for dissection in the name of research, or adopted.
For families who believe life begins at conception, there’s only one “life choice,” as Tyson said. “Everything else will destroy the embryo eventually.” However, this ethical problem often goes unmentioned by the fertility industry, which profits from serial embryo creation.
Thawing and preparing embryos for implantation can be physically rigorous, meaning not all of them are guaranteed to live outside the lab or the womb. However, embryo adoption gives them a chance at a life they never would have had in sub-zero cryopreservation tanks.
Tyson said Nighlight’s Snowflakes program, specifically, helps families who want to adopt embryos to navigate “the matching process, the legal contracts, and the shipment of the embryos from the donor’s clinic to the clinic where the adopting family will have their frozen embryo transfer” and beyond.
The program even encourages and sometimes facilitates communication between biological and birth families. The Streges keep in touch with Hannah’s donor parents and have access to her medical history.
Three decades after its inception, the program now boasts more than 1,000 “Snowflake” babies and hundreds of happy families, including the Streges.
Small Redemption in a Big Broken Industry
Hannah, now in her 20s, made her conception and birth story her life’s mission. She started an Instagram support group for other children born of embryo adoption and counsels younger Snowflakes on navigating relationships with their biological and birth families.
“I think it would be doing the world a disservice if I wasn’t speaking out and doing all of this stuff,” said Hannah, who hopes one day to open an adoption counseling practice because adoption is “a lifelong journey.”
Embryo adoption isn’t without its critics, who say it encourages couples to keep employing the baby-making industry. But the aims of embryo adoption and Big Fertility are miles apart. Nobody is throwing away tens of thousands of dollars to manufacture children for the purpose of giving them away.
Others, such as the Catholic Church, express moral uneasiness at the thought of placing an embryo with non-relational DNA in a mother, as happens in surrogacy. With surrogacy, however, embryos are manufactured, shopped out to a rented womb, and then taken from their birth mom’s arms after nine months in her uterus. In contrast, the embryos adopted by willing families are already created, waiting to be given a chance at life and love.
“Those children are already there. They need hope,” Marlene said, advising people toward embryo adoption and away from finding a donor egg or sperm. “I tell people, you need to answer this question: Is it in the best interest of the child to use a donor egg and donor sperm, or is it in the parents’ best interest because they want a child? It is never in the child’s best interest.”
In the end, the child’s best interest is at the heart of embryo adoption. Couples who adopt embryos know a good outcome is not guaranteed, but they do it anyway because they know they represent a frozen, unborn child’s best shot at life.
“The embryos awaiting their chance at life in frozen storage, they’re just as in need of a home as any other child in foster care or domestic adoption or internationally,” Hannah said. “I know a lot of people say, ‘Well, let’s focus on the kids that are already born.’ Well, everybody deserves a … chance at life. I think that just acknowledging that life begins at conception is really the top priority for these lives to be saved.”