Testimony before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources by Marlene Stregne

Date: 07/17/2001

July 17, 2001

I am Marlene Strege, a resident of Falbrook, California and registered occupational therapist, holding a B.S. Magna Cum Laude from the University of Southern California. I am accompanied today by my husband, John, who is behind me holding my daughter, Hannah Strege, the first adopted former frozen embryo. Thank you for this opportunity to testify.

Our story begins in 1996, when John and I realized we had a fertility problem. We tried infertility treatment for nearly a year. It was expensive, costing as much as $2,000 per cycle. For us the treatment was also ineffective. We were devastated when we finally came to terms with this. I suffered all of the standard side effects associated with infertility, including severe depression and grief. I cannot adequately express how debilitating infertility proved to us.

Infertility is a medical disorder that has an international classification of diagnosis code (ICD-9).1 Estimates of the number of Americans affected by it range from 6.5 to 10 million couples (or 13 to 20 million individuals).2 Infertility has grown rapidly since the 1980’s.3  Experts are not sure of the reason, but believe it may be related to delayed marriages and pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, pollution, diet, and lack of exercise.4

We explored in-vitro fertilization and traditional adoption as a substitute for genetic birth. However, both had serious drawbacks. Traditional adoption could not satisfy my deepest longing to experience pregnancy and childbirth. It can take months to identify and adopt a baby, particularly if the adoption involves a child from a foreign country. Traditional adoption obviously also does not have the advantage of prenatal bonding. I was prepared to do almost whatever it took to become pregnant.

Like many couples feeling this way, John and I decided to pursue in-vitro fertilization, despite its high cost. In 1997, a single IVF procedure was $12,000 at our clinic plus costly medication. We heard of a couple at the clinic, which spent $60,000 trying to become pregnant. They dipped into their retirement funds without successfully conceiving.

John and I pursued IVF anyway, only to be told on January 14, 1997, that I had premature ovarian failure and was not able to produce eggs any longer. Physicians informed us that our only option to conceive was to obtain donor eggs. It occurred to me to ask whether we could adopt embryos. The doctor looked puzzled and said he had never done this, but would ask families in his practice whether they would consider a “donation.” He returned to us later with a list of embryos differing in prospective hair color, ethnicity, and other features. Like a waiter soliciting an entré, he would have taken our order.

John and I were uncomfortable with this. It seemed to us this was more like buying a car than conceiving. In addition, we had heard about lawsuits filed against the University of California at Irvine (“UCI”), alleging misappropriation of patient eggs and embryos.5  Plaintiffs claimed that doctors implanted their embryos without their knowledge or consent, purportedly leading to the birth of several dozen children.6 UCI was forced to close its Center for Reproductive Health as a consequence.7

To avoid these types of problems, we contacted what is now Nightlight Adoption Agency to inquire whether it offered embryo adoption. It did not. However, the executive director agreed that the agency should consider offering this service in light of the rapid growth of the IVF industry and recent events in Britain that led to the wholesale slaughter of 3,300 embryos.8  The Snowflake Program, as well as a new frontier for adoption, was born out of this meeting of minds.

Hannah’s genetic parents chose us for embryo adoption the same way a birth mother chooses a family with whom she wants to place her child. Both genetic families and prospective adoptive families involved in the Snowflake Program express their financial, religious, educational, and other preferences. Families must also provide thorough medical, psychological, paternal, and background information. We also completed an adoption home study at an expense of about $2,000. The home study was valid for embryo, traditional, or international adoption.

The adoption approach is much safer and satisfying for all concerned than mere embryo donation. Without the background information available through the Snowflakes Program, we would not have known the donor family’s full psychological, medical, or other characteristics or, indeed, whether the embryo was a relative. Our daughter also would not have access to information on her parentage when she began dating. Last, donation would not communicate to Hannah the same special selection adoption connotes.

Following matching, we agreed with Hannah’s genetic parents upon an open adoption agreement in March 1998. See Ex. A, Timeline. The agreement includes a confidentiality provision that prevents us from providing information about Hannah’s genetic parents, other than to say that they, like many other families, were uncomfortable with the choices that the IVF clinic provided them.

Hannah and her nineteen siblings were shipped via FedEx in straws of two or three embryos in a canister of liquid nitrogen to our IVF clinic in Pasadena, California. They arrived on March 6, 1998. See Ex. A, Timeline. My body was prepared to receive three embryos with a series of hormonal injections (estrogen and progesterone), starting with the first day of my cycle. Ultrasounds were conducted to assess how my uterine lining was thickening.

At the right moment on or about March 7, 1998, physicians began the thawing process. Sadly, only three of 12 embryos survived this process and were transferred into my womb the following day. Freezing embryos leads to the death of, on average, more than half of them.9  Not all embryos adhere to a mother’s uterine lining either.10 Therefore, adoptive mothers should be prepared to receive more than one transfer. The cost to us was about $2,500 per cycle plus drugs (costing about $40 per cycle) and miscellaneous expenses.

During my first transfer, no children successfully implanted. Accordingly, physicians thawed the remaining embryos on April 10, 1998. See Ex. A, Timeline. Three survived including Hannah. The embryologist snapped a picture of Hannah and her siblings for our baby book. Id. No mere “dot,” she contained within her the entire blueprint for human life, including all of her human organs and tissues. She required a place to grow, nutrients and love – her same basic needs today – but Hannah did the rest.

In fact, Hannah developed overnight outside of my body before the transfer. The physician referred to this as compaction, a process wherein all of her cells started to move to one side and a fluid-filled sac began forming. We have a picture of Hannah after this occurred outside of my womb on April 11, 1998, the day she and her siblings were transferred to my uterus. Id.

On April 20, 1998, I learned that my first reliable blood test revealed an HCg level of 57, meaning I was pregnant with at least one child. A second elevated test on April 23, 1998 and ultrasound on May 4, 1998, confirmed this. Id. We grieved for Hannah’s siblings, but were ecstatic to hear Hannah’s heartbeat on May 14, 1998. Id. Words cannot explain how thrilled I was. By far, this is the greatest thing I have experienced.

By the end of the first trimester, I was weaned off all hormone injections. Like most mothers, I experienced morning sickness and nausea. The only complication in my pregnancy was an allergic reaction that I developed to the sesame oil in progesterone injections. On May 14, 1998, May 22, 1998, and August 20, 1998, additional ultrasounds revealed my baby was doing fine. Id. I felt her kick for the first time on July 25, 1998.

Hannah Strege was born through a caesarian section on December 31, 1998, at 7:07 AM, weighing 6 pounds, 14 ounces. See Id.; Ex. B, Birth Certificate. She is the best gift parents could have and no different than most children, all of who were once embryos. See Ex. A, Timeline. I keep a journal in my kitchen drawer of all of the touching things Hannah does or says; it is becoming overloaded. Recently, she began coming up to me and saying out of the blue with a big smile, “Mommy, I happy!” You cannot place a value on moments like these.

Jon and I never intended to disclose Hannah’s origin to people other than our immediate family and friends. We adopted her long before we knew about any public controversy involving embryo stem cell research. Mary Tyler Moore and Sen. Tom Harken changed our plans. The most difficult two days that my husband and I have endured involved watching Ms. Moore compare my daughter to a goldfish and Sen. Harken liken her to a dot on a piece of paper and refer to her as expendable. Obviously, she is none of these.

Notwithstanding the message conveyed by the media, John and I care as deeply as anyone else about identifying therapies and cures for serious diseases. In my occupation, I care for many people who have severe disabilities. My mother died from pancreatic cancer. We ourselves suffer from a medical disorder. We paid to save our daughter’s cord blood at birth to advance umbilical stem cell research designed to overcome serious disease. See Ex. C, Official Certificate of Deposit. However, the moral implications of this research and research using adult and placenta stem cells is vastly different from using embryo stem cells. One kills the subject human donor; the other does not. Even atheists can appreciate this dichotomy.

Another myth propagated in the media is that embryos exist “in excess of need.” Setting aside the thoughts of many that the personhood of the embryo renders this inquiry irrelevant, the claim is empirically inaccurate. More infertile couples exist than embryos likely to survive thawing.11 Any woman can carry any 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.

Looking into Hannah’s eyes, I weep for the roughly 188,000 frozen human embryos like her placed in frozen embryo orphanages,12 who could be adopted, rather than terminated with assistance from my federal tax dollars. We plead with Congress not to force millions of Americans like me to violate our consciences and participate in another form of genocide, especially when the advances possible with other stem cells are not nearly exhausted.

  1. Joe S. McIlhaney, Jr., M.D., 1001 Health-Care Questions Women Ask 433 (1998).
  2. Id.; Dominick Vetri, Reproductive Technologies and United States Law, 37 Int’l & Comp. L. Q. 505 (1988).
  3. McIlhaney supra note 1, at 432-433.
  4. Id.
  5. See Judith F. Daar, Regulating Reproductive Technologies: Panacea or PaperTiger? 34 Hous. L. Rev. 609, 609-14 (1997).
  6. Id. at 611.
  7. Id. at 612.
  8. Traci Watson, Excess Embryos, U.S. News & World Rep. 10 (August 12, 1996); James Walsh, A Bitter Embryo Imbroglio:  Amid Dramatic Protests and Universal Unease, Britain Begins Destroying 3,300 Human Embryos, Time (August 12, 1996).
  9. See IVF Phoenix Infertility Information Booklet (“Not all embryos survive the freeze-thaw process.  A 50% survival rate is considered reasonable.  After the thaw, embryos retaining 50 percent or more of the cells they had before freezing are cultured and placed back in the uterus via a tube inserted in the cervix.  The number returned varies with the desires of the patient under the guidelines of age categories; under 35 years old, up to four embryos, 35 years and older, up to six embryos.  National statistics for women 39 or less is 27% per embryo transfer, for women over 39, 14% per embryo transfer.  Delivery rates will be lower due to miscarriage.”); Michael J. Tucker, Ph.D., The Freezing of Human Oocytes (Eggs), www.ivf.com/freezing.html (“Whether eggs are mature or not, standard cryopreservation technologies appear to have their ultimate limitations not only in terms of cryosurvival (% of eggs that are alive after thawing), but also more importantly in their lack of consistency. 50% cryosurvival may be an adequate overall outcome and is now commonly reported, but not if it is a statistic that is arrived at by 90-100% survival in one case, and 0-10% in the next. Consequently, radically different types of freezing protocol may provide the answer to increased consistent success. Different approaches have been applied, and include replacing the principal salts in the freezing solutions in an attempt to help reduce the stresses on the egg membranes during cryoprotectant exposure. This has provided significant improvements in mouse egg freezing, though it has yet to be applied clinically in the human.”); Michelle F. Sublett, Not Frozen Embryos:  What Are They and How Should the Law Treat Them? 38 Clev. St. L. Rev. 585, 593 (1990) (overall, “there is less than a ten percent chance of creating a live birth from a frozen embryo.”).
  10. Center for Disease Control, 1998 Assisted Reproductive Technology Success Rates 47 (2000).
  11. Based upon a conservative estimate of 188,000 frozen human embryos currently stored in IVF clinics, see Lori B. Andrews, Embryonic Confusion; When You Think Conception, You Don’t Think Product Liability; Think Again, Washington Post at B1, B4 (May 2, 1999); a conservative thaw survival rate of 50 percent, see supra note 9; and a national pregnancy rate for IVF clinics of between 13.4 percent (over 40) to 37.2 percent (under 35), see supra note 10, between 12,600 and 35,000 children could be placed for adoption and born in the families of the 6.5 to 10 million infertile married couples in America who seek to raise children.
  12. Andrews, supra note 11.