Embryo Adoption Awareness Campaign to Lose Federal Funding

According to the Bionews report Frozen embryo ‘adoption’ scheme to lose US government funding,   the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will not request funding  for continued support of the Embryo Adoption Awareness Campaign and the program will be discontinued in 2013.  This Campaign was created in 2007 by Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a Pro-life group. The purpose of the campaign was to ” increase awareness regarding embryo donation and adoption as a family building option”, according to the Embryo Adoption Awareness Center’s website.  Last year, the center received 1.9 million dollars and a total of 23 million dollars since the first year of funding. According to their website, there have been 270 children born from embryo “adoptions” facilitated by the center, or about $85,000 per birth.

If this was the only avenue for couples seeking pregnancy via embryo adoption, it might just be worth it. But it is not.  Almost every fertility center has a program in place for embryo adoption within its patient population. Why? Because  every center has some patients with extra embryos that they would prefer to donate to infertility patients  rather than discard and some patients who would like to have an embryo transfer with donated embryos to become pregnant. So it’s a nice tidy ecosystem of supply and demand, if you want to be utilitarian about it.

Even Barbara Collura, the executive director of Resolve: The National Infertility Association, is shedding no tears over the loss of this funding. According to the Bionews article,  she thinks the money Congress already has spent on embryo adoption awareness has ‘done the trick’ and believes that more funding is needed for general education about infertility.  I would agree. Any benefit from this funding has been had.

I have to admit that I was always more than a little skeptical of the value of this program because my personal interactions with Snowflake facilitators on the behalf of patients has never been encouraging and sometimes downright disturbing.  One case in particular stuck in my mind for two reasons. First, these embryos had been donated and re-donated at least 3 times, traveling from clinic to clinic, trying to find a “home” , perhaps explaining their poor quality at thaw. Secondly, in order to receive these Snowflakes embryos,  the recipient patient told us that the Snowflakes organization required her to promise that she would to transfer all the thawed embryos, regardless of quality. Typically, because we can’t predict which of the embryos, if any , will prove to be viable after thaw, more than 1-2 are thawed and the best growing (or sometimes only growing ) 1-2 are transferred. The patient was worried that if we thawed them only 1-2 at a time, she wouldn’t have any good quality embryos for transfer and if we thawed all of them, there were too many to safely transfer. I believe in the end the patient’s physician was able to convince her that her medical safety came first, any obligations to the Snowflakes organization came second.

This possible demise of this program which was initially funded under the conservative presidency of George W. Bush during the great stem cell debate, is being decried by the religious right as though its demise will actually have any effect on the continuation of embryo adoption in the US. The political activists who are shedding tears over this program are ignorant (or pretending to be) regarding what really happens in fertility centers all over this country. Embryo adoption was a viable option prior to this program, funding this program had minimal effect on the number of embryos donated, and loss of this funding will likewise make zero difference in the options patients have. Why? Because most fertility centers are working to help their patients get pregnant, regardless of the patients religious or political views. If anything, the fertility industry is often more market than mission, so you can be sure if there is a way to help two patients with a problem (one with excess embryos and one who wants an embryo transfer), this medical need will be met.

The creation of this awareness campaign was politically motivated and its demise is no loss to the infertility community.

What annoys me is that infertility is so often used as a political football by political groups to advance their political agenda and not because they care (even a little) about solving the problems of infertility patients.  The Pope thinks IVF is a sin and so embryo donation has deeply troubling moral implications and arguably may not be moral because IVF embryos were created by immoral means. The Christian Snowflakes group thinks that women are required to thaw every single embryo they receive, transfer it to their uterus (even against medical advice)  and hope for the best. The embryo “uber alles”. What about the patient?

The oft-reported statistic that 400,000 embryos reside in storage in US fertility clinics is also very misleading because it is always implied that but for embryo donation, these would all be discarded. In fact, Snowflakes says  “we are trying to provide a loving option to the families of the over 600,000 (estimated) embryos frozen in clinics throughout the United States. “  Wrong, Wrong. Wrong. In fact the vast majority of these stored embryos are not  available for donation and will be “used”  by the patients who created them to start or enlarge their own families. It is only when their own family building efforts are complete and they still have embryos in storage, that disposition of these embryos  become an issue for the patient.  This group of patients with excess embryos is a minority in the IVF patient population. In my experience, perhaps only half of the patients had excess embryos to freeze after a fresh cycle. For most patients, any excess embryos were used in the next cycle (if the fresh cycle failed) or in two years time when they wanted another child. Very few patients had left over embryos after two cycles.

In most programs, patients with excess embryos are offered all the options for disposition (embryo adoption, donation to stem cell research, donation to the clinics to keep technical skills sharp or discard). And guess what, the patients made that choice!  Not the government. Not the clinic. Not political interest groups. So leggo my “eggo”.

A better use for this funding would be education about the preventable causes of (some kinds of)  infertility and all the options for family building (not just IVF) when infertility becomes an issue.  When patients are informed about all their options, they can make the best choices for themselves and their families based on their own (varied) personal beliefs and ethics. That seems fair to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2012, Fertility Lab Insider. All rights reserved.

©2012 Fertility Lab Insider. All Rights Reserved.

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