When his wife, Pamela, 41, was pregnant, Travis Bishop, 46, liked to have some fun when people congratulated them. “I would say, very deadpan, ‘It’s not mine,’” he says. Pause. “Then, ‘It’s not hers, either.’”
This is the way the Bishops of Rockville, who are both in the Navy, opened up conversation about how they used embryos from another family to have their son,
Declan, who was born about one year ago. Pamela and Travis, who have been married for 19 years, had been trying to have kids since 2007. Three years later, they began to have some testing done to figure out why they weren’t getting pregnant. By then, Pamela, who has four younger siblings who have 16 children between them, was growing increasingly upset and frustrated. It
became a struggle to go to “baby shower after baby shower after baby shower,” she says. “I finally made a command decision in my heart that I’m just not going to go anymore. I will send a gift, but I’m not going to put myself through that anymore.”
Travis struggled the most with not being able to give his wife what she wanted.
“I couldn’t go out and buy it. I couldn’t go out and make it. It was something completely out of my control,” he says. The Bishops also began to have marital problems, which Pamela attributes to the massive stress of trying to have children for so long.
Finally, in 2012, after the Bishops were transferred from Texas to Maryland, Travis, who is currently based at Fort Meade, learned that he has azoospermia, or a complete lack of sperm. And, incidentally, his doctor broke the news to him on Valentine’s Day. Because procreation is natural and primal, Travis says, “When you find out you can’t, for whatever reason … there is definitely a level of self-loathing, that you don’t measure up.”
By then, though, the Bishops had begun the process of adopting embryos. It’s a service they learned about through Pamela’s mother, who had heard about the Snow-flakes® Embryo Adoption Program on a Christian radio talk show. The Bishops could have used Pamela’s eggs and donor sperm to create embryos, but Pamela worried that might lead to an unequal parenting
relationship with their future child. “I wanted [Travis] to feel like our child was our child,” says Pamela, who is based at the Pentagon. “The draw for me to Snowflakes was that it wasn’t taking a part of me and leaving him out.”
Through the Snowflakes program, the Bishops adopted six embryos from a couple who has two kids. The donor couple’s embryos were frozen for nearly six years in a clinic in Michigan, so the Bishops decided to go there for the embryo transfer, the procedure in which the embryos would be implanted in Pamela’s uterus. To prepare for the procedure, the clinic thawed four of the embryos; two survived and were transferred in April 2015. (The Bishops have two embryos left and are still deciding what to do with them.) Pamela was pregnant one week before her 40th birthday, and Declan was born on December 12, 2015.
Sitting in a booth at a Greene Turtle in Hanover, Travis—who has a column of tattoos on his left forearm in honor of his son, including a snowflake and a replica of Declan’s newborn footprints—takes out his phone and scrolls through the many photos he took after Declan was born. Next to him, then 10-month-old Declan with his piercing blue eyes has fallen asleep, cradled in the crook of his mother’s arm. Before he was born, Pamela had a small fear that he wouldn’t feel like their child. “But as soon as we knew we were pregnant, he was ours,” she says. She looks down at the baby she waited eight years for and tears up. “How is it possible to love someone so much?”
Donating and receiving embryos might sound like a modern service to address infertility, but it’s been around for about three decades. “In the ’80s, doctors were providing patients with donated remaining embryos, but it was always done anonymously,” says Kimberly Tyson, marketing and program director for the Snowflakes® Embryo Adoption program and the Embryo Adoption Awareness Center in Loveland, Colo. Founded in 1997, Snowflakes —a program of Nightlight® Christian Adoptions (NCA) and the first program of its kind in the world—celebrates its 20th anniversary this year; farther east, the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), an embryo donation clinic in Knoxville, Tenn., has been around for 14 years. Both programs serve couples throughout the country and, as of last October, nearly 1,100 babies had been born between them.
This infertility option starts with couples who had children through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and are left with extra embryos they aren’t planning to use. They have a few choices as to what to do with them. They can keep the embryos in frozen storage. (Fees vary, but Fairfax Cryobank in Va., for example, charges $40 a month.) They can discard them or donate them to research. Or they can donate them to other couples who are still struggling with infertility, giving them the opportunity to experience pregnancy and childbirth. Costs vary, but the Bishops spent slightly more than $10,000 to have Declan, which includes $8,000 for the Snowflakes program. In contrast, a single cycle of IVF costs $12,000 to $17,000.
After a person or family receives embryos, the woman will have to take hormones to get her body ready for pregnancy, including estrogen to help her uterine lining develop and progesterone to make that uterine lining receptive to an embryo, says Eric Widra, medical director of Shady Grove Fertility (SGF), which started its embryo donation program in the spring of 2016. The actual embryo transfer is quick and painless, and the woman remains awake throughout the procedure. After an embryo transfer with frozen donor embryos, the national average pregnancy rate is 50 percent and the live birth rate is 40 percent, according to a 2013 CDC report. Although this is the same service regardless of where it’s offered, there is a fundamental disagreement between agencies and fertility clinics as to what to call it. Snowflakes, which has received federal funding in various years for the last decade, uses the term “embryo adoption” because the end result of embryo donation is the birth of a child who is not genetically related to the family giving birth.
“We don’t donate children to families. We adopt children into families,” Tyson says. “I’m a pro-life organization, and I’m really about helping embryos get rescued out of frozen storage and get born.” Various organizations estimate that there are about 1 million embryos in frozen storage in the U.S.
Thus, through Snowflakes, as well as the NEDC, people who want to adopt embryos must complete some of the same requirements as couples who are adopting children, such as a home study. Donating couples will often be able to choose the family who adopts their embryos, and open relationships between the two families are encouraged. This can range from donor and receiving families who communicate only through their agency to those who take vacations together.
On the other hand, the two clinics in Maryland that offer this service—Shady Grove Fertility, which has offices throughout the state, and Columbia Fertility Services, which has an office in Bethesda—use the term “embryo donation” to describe their largely anonymous programs. The Ethics Committee of The American Society for Reproductive Medicine has written that using the term “adoption” in relation to embryos is misleading because it encourages people to think of an embryo as a “fully entitled legal being.” Widra says there are also emotional challenges associated with adoption that might not be as pronounced with embryo donation. “The act of relinquishing an embryo is very different than the act of relinquishing a child,” he adds.
Legally, embryos are considered property, and are thus governed by property law, not adoption law. The rights of embryos transfer from one family to another when both families sign paperwork. Then, when a baby is born, “the woman who gives birth to the baby is legally the baby’s mother and the man whom she is married to is legally the baby’s father. Their names go on the birth certificate,” Tyson says. Some media stories have mentioned that embryo donation is an option for women who are well into their 50s—and, therefore, past standard childbearing years—to still get pregnant and give birth. Although this seems less common, particularly because programs have cutoff ages—women have to be 50 or younger to get an embryo transfer through the NEDC and 51 or younger for any of the infertility services at SGF—there are alternate routes. Donna K., 54, who lives with her sister in Bowie, got pregnant with her daughter, Evangeline, when she was 52. (Donna prefers not to share her last name.) When she was 41, Donna and her husband began going through two cycles of intrauterine insemination (IUI), which was required by their insurance, and two cycles of IVF. With IVF, embryos were transferred to her uterus both times, but Donna never got pregnant. She says she knew all along she was infertile.
Donna got divorced and, at 52, figured she had to have kids “now or never.” She chose a woman in her 30s to produce donor eggs, which were fertilized in a lab with donor sperm to create her embryos. After she had an embryo transfer, got pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Donna had seven embryos left. “Because of my age, I was like, ‘Well, of course, I can’t have any more,’” she says. Donna donated her embryos to the NEDC.
Laura Covington, a clinical social worker with SGF—which requires that people interested in donating embryos attend a mandatory counseling session—says people may decide to donate their embryos for religious or ethical reasons. Or, after going through the physical and emotional toll of infertility treatments and finally having children, they may want to give another person or couple the opportunity to have kids, too. In Donna’s case, it might seem like it would be easier for her to donate her embryos because her eggs weren’t used to create them. Covington says this isn’t always the case. “A potential child from an embryo would [still] be fully genetically related to their child. It brings up a lot of issues,” Covington says.
But for Donna, she is excited about the possibility that her daughter could have full siblings. “Maybe the [kids] could know each other,” she says. “I don’t want [Evangeline] to be isolated and have no type of genetic connection … A big part of it is because I’m older and my family is not really that big. I’m trying to do everything I can do … so she has options.”
At SGF, a person or couple who is interested in receiving embryos goes through the same mandatory psycho-educational session. Covington talks with them about what it will mean to them not to have biological children. She also encourages them to tell any children they might have about their origin story from an early age.
Rebecca McGrath, 33, and her husband, Titus, 39, have been telling their 6-year-old twins, Jacksen and Ella, how they were born for the last four years. The McGraths got married a decade ago, and began trying to have children right afterward. After a medical appointment, when they learned they wouldn’t be able to have children of their own, Rebecca walked into an empty waiting room and cried. “That was the only time I grieved not having biological children,” she says. “I know it’s harder for some people. I was able to move on.”
But Rebecca still wanted to be pregnant. The McGraths, who are born again Christians, felt adopting embryos would “be an opportunity to give those embryos a chance at life,” Rebecca says. They chose the NEDC in Knoxville, Tenn., because the facility is a clinic, meaning the McGraths, who lived in Owings Mills at the time, could go there for the embryo transfer instead of having the embryos shipped to a fertility clinic in Maryland. They adopted six embryos, and three survived the thawing process. Rebecca and Titus learned they were having twins in 2010.
When the twins were 3, the McGrath family, who now live in Lancaster County, Pa., traveled to Yosemite National Park to meet their donating family, who live out West with their three young children.
The McGraths will now show the children photos from that trip, explaining that this family gave them the embryos. “They’ll [sometimes] tell people they were adopted as a embryo,” Rebecca says. “People are like, ‘What?’ But [the kids] are comfortable.”