Adoption's New Frontier

A glass bakeware dish that exploded apart.
Consumer Reports
This article was written by Elissa K. Zirinsky.
On May 24, President Bush invited 21 families to a White House ceremony and said each of them had "answered the call to ensure that our society's most vulnerable members are protected and defended at every stage of life."

What exactly did these families do to merit such high praise from the president?

These families had adopted embryos left over from other couples' attempts to conceive through in vitro fertilization. They came to the White House to support the position that frozen embryos are human lives worth saving.

Eighty-four families have adopted frozen embryos in this country. For some, like those who came to the White House in May, this is at least partly a political act; for others, it's a way to have a pregnancy and a child. But embryo adoption is now a dramatic side story to the intense debate surrounding the estimated 400,000 frozen embryos in the U.S. today.

Since 1998, when Dr. James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin developed a way to isolate and grow embryonic stem cells, there has been a new component to this nation's moral discussion about when life begins. Derived from human embryos, embryonic stem cells can theoretically divide indefinitely and develop into specialized human cells to act as a repair system for the body. But this stem cell research would require the destruction of frozen embryos in the research process. And that is the crux of the current stem cell debate: Do we destroy potential lives to look for ways to save existing lives? Is a frozen embryo made of a few cells a life that society ought to protect?

Some people have taken their opposition to destroying embryos to extraordinary lengths -- they have "rescued" them and tried to demonstrate that they are "pre-born" children.

Couples like Paige and Stuart Faulk of Alexandria, Virginia brought their children to the White House in an effort to show what an embryo, not used for research, can become -- their two-year-old daughter, Noelle.

Noelle is a "Snowflake Baby" born through embryo adoption. The term "Snowflake" -- created by the first adoption agency to arrange embryo adoptions, Nightlight Christian Adoptions -- highlights the uniqueness of each embryo. The label can also be attributed to the fact that each of these children's lives started, well, frozen.

Noelle's parents experienced infertility for over five years. They took the usual measures to conceive both naturally and then through in vitro fertilization, only to learn that Paige, her mother, had premature ovarian menopause. During in vitro, the Faulks made it clear to their doctors that they did not want them to over-fertilize and freeze embryos; any that were created, were implanted in Paige's uterus. Unfortunately, none survived. When the prospect of getting pregnant and giving birth seemed bleak, Paige said she, "prayed about [conventional] adoption." Then she happened to turn on the car radio on her way to work and heard Marlene Strege on the Christian program, "Focus on the Family."

Marlene and John Strege were the first couple to adopt frozen embryos, and in 1998, their daughter Hannah was the first snowflake baby born. In testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform in July 2001, Marlene spoke out against the use of embryos in stem cell research, and said, "Any woman can carry an embryo; tissue or blood matching is not necessary. As embryo adoption proliferates in the wake of this controversy, the 'excess supply' of embryos will evaporate."