Testimony Before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies by JoAnn L. Davidson

Date: 07/17/2001

July 17, 2001

My name is JoAnn L. Davidson. I am a resident of Balboa Island, California and hold a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Texas A&M University. I am the Program Director for Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, a division of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, located at 801 East Chapman Avenue, Suite 106, Fullerton, California 92831. Nightlight has been involved in domestic adoptions since 1959 and international adoptions of children since 1992.

The Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program derives its name from the idea that snowflakes like human embryos are frozen, unique and cannot be recreated. Nightlight developed the program in 1997 in response to two developments, together with the personal infertility experience of John and Marlene Strege.

The first development to influence Nightlight’s decision was a British law passed on August 1, 1991, requiring the destruction of all frozen embryos unclaimed after five years. It took effect on July 31, 1996, leading to the extermination, according to a survey by Britain’s Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority, of 3,300 frozen embryos. The genetic parents of the remaining 6,000 embryos exercised their rights to extend storage for another five years or donate them. Nightlight decided it wanted to do its part to prevent a similar massacre in the United States.

The second development is the rapid growth since the early-1980’s of the in-vitro fertilization (“IVF”) industry in the United States. In the last two decades, it grew from one clinic to 360 by 1998. In the late-1990s, it was estimated that the IVF industry was earning revenues exceeding $350 million annually. One observer estimated in 1999 that these IVF clinics store more than 150,000 frozen live humans with 19,000 added each year. Anecdotal evidence suggests the number may be much higher.

Due to the tendency of fertility drugs given to women in IVF programs to produce more embryos than can safely be implanted at any one time, it has become common to freeze the unused embryos in a process called cryopreservation in order to preserve their lives for implantation at a later date. Although this process relieves the woman of the cost and physical burden of further egg retrievals while preserving the lives of some of their embryos, the practical result is that the IVF industry regularly produces more human embryos than it implants, leading to an exploding frozen living human population.

IVF clinics agree to store frozen embryos for a fixed period of time, usually five years. Then, they offer the genetic parents the option of extending storage for a fee varying between $100 and $500 annually, implanting the embryos, terminating them, or donating them for some purpose. Storage agreements with IVF clinics may include a presumption in favor of one of these alternatives if the genetic parents fail to act.

An increasing number of genetic parents presented with the dilemma of what to do with their frozen embryos would like the alternative of placing them with qualified families. Regardless of the medical or legal status of their embryos, these genetic parents are emotionally invested in their offspring and feel responsible for their welfare. As their storage contracts come up for renewal, they are looking for additional choices not offered by IVF clinics.

Fortunately, there are tremendous potential benefits of embryo adoption for infertile families. An estimated 6.5 to 10 million couples (or 13 to 20 million individuals) in the United States suffer from infertility. Most of them dearly want children and long to conceive. Accordingly, many turn to the IVF industry, notwithstanding the expense, the low success rate, and their ethical reservations. For these people, child adoption is less attractive, because it does not involve pregnancy, prenatal bonding, or childbirth.

In contrast, embryo adoption involves all of these benefits, includes the satisfaction of parenting a waiting child, and is far less expensive than IVF treatments. The average expense of our embryo adoptions is between $7,000 and $10,000, compared to an average of nearly $50,000 for IVF treatments plus expensive medication. Half of the couples that have participated in embryo adoption through the Snowflakes Program have become pregnant.

Embryo adoption is better than embryo donation because it involves a thorough screening process designed to ensure that embryos are placed with stable families meeting the expectations of genetic parents. It also protects against parenting paternally related children. Genetic parents complete an inventory of their financial, religious, educational and other preferences. We match these with input from the adopting parents.

Adoptive families participate in a standard home study, which can be used either for embryo or traditional adoption. They must also divulge thorough medical, psychological, paternal, and background information. The adoption agency preparing the homestudy provides professional counseling and education to the adoptive family regarding integrating the child into the home, parenting, and other issues unique to the family.

The Snowflakes Program promotes open adoption over closed adoption, because it is the most psychologically rewarding for all concerned. Open adoption necessarily involves selection of families through pictures and letters and usually, but not necessarily, involves knowledge by the genetic and adoptive parents of one another’s last names and addresses. We recommend the latter because it enables children to become acquainted with their genetic parents and receive answers to the questions they naturally ask.

When we find a match between genetic and adoptive parents, we begin the formal adoption process, including drafting an adoption agreement. The latter provides, among other things, for the relinquishment of the genetic parents’ rights over the embryo and states that the baby born will bear the name of the adoptive family and have inheritance rights through only the adoptive family.

Under well-established contract law principles, embryo adoption through an adoption agreement is permitted in all 50 states. Accordingly, the fact that the legal framework for embryo adoption is partially articulated in not more than a few states is less of a concern. The presumed mother of a child is his or her birth mother, who in this case is also the adoptive mother.

Following adoption, Snowflakes arranges for shipment of the frozen living humans. Then, implantation proceeds. The adoptive family selects his or her own embryologist and other physicians who prepare the adopting woman’s womb (which normally involves injections of inexpensive hormones such as estrogen and progesterone), thaw the embryos, and perform the transfer. The adoption agreement requires that any unused embryos be returned to their genetic parents. They may not be destroyed.

To date, the Snowflakes Program has been involved in the placement of eight babies born to six families across the United States. Hannah Strege, who you will meet shortly, was the first. Five children are in gestation in the wombs of three moms. Twenty-seven families have been matched. A total of 314 embryos from 35 families have been adopted, 182 thawed, and 93 survived and implanted.

The Snowflakes Program only recently received publicity when ABC’s PrimeTime featured it on April 12, 2001. After the program aired, the number of genetic parents that enrolled their frozen children in the Program increased 35 percent to roughly 67 with an average of seven embryos each in storage. The number of registered adoptive families also increased to roughly 70. Recently, we learned about a group of IVF practitioners considering disbanding, who would like to offer to each of their 500 clients the adoption option.

The potential growth of the Snowflakes Program is mind-numbing. We have doubled in size each year since the program started. This past year (2000), we increased our embryo adoptions 600 percent. We are scrambling now to develop a model, which other agencies can implement, to expand the embryo adoption concept.

Ultimately, no embryo will prove in “excess of the clinical need.” Based upon our conservative estimate of 188,000 frozen human embryos currently stored in IVF clinics, a conservative thaw survival rate of 50 percent, and a national pregnancy rate for IVF clinics of between 13.4% (over 40) to 37.2% (under 35), 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.

Every human embryo, even if he or she can no longer be cared for by their genetic parents, deserves to be nurtured and given a chance for a good life with an adoptive couple who will love and raise them to be welcome citizens of this country. Under these circumstances, a decision to authorize the federal funding of human embryo destruction is a decision to take the lives of at least 12,600 to 35,000 children who otherwise could have been born and raised by loving adoptive parents.

Therefore, independent of the legal question whether an embryo is or is not a “legal person” for this or another purpose, we respectfully request, along with most Americans (especially infertile Americans), that Congress not lift its existing ban against federal spending for the destruction of human embryos for any purpose, including the lethal “harvesting” and medical experimentation upon the stem cells that compose each living human embryo.

Poll data educating Americans on the necessary consequence of embryo stem cell research, in particular, the destruction of embryos required to obtain their stem cells, reveals that 74 percent of Americans oppose use of tax dollars to support it. The media, nevertheless, has tried to paint opposition to embryo stem cell research as another attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade.

This is unreasonable. At least fifteen states (including Utah) have expressed their legislative intent to outlaw harmful experiments on human embryos, regardless of how they are funded. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia enforce tort, criminal and other laws declaring that human life begins at conception. These laws have not affected the constitutionality of the pro-choice position. Likewise, a decision to fund or not to fund embryo stem cell research has no bearing on whether a mother has the right to terminate her pregnancy.

Human embryo adoption is not about abortion. It is not about hindering medical science, which has not exhausted potential advances with adult, placenta, and umbilical stem cells. It is not about “dots on a paper,” as Sen. Harkin has referred to living human embryos, nor like “shooting gold fish in a barrel,” as actress Mary Tyler Moore likened killing living human embryos. Sad to say, this is not even about banning privately funded destructive research on living human embryos to harvest their stem cells.

Rather, this debate is about whether we as an entire society want to federally fund research destroying any chance that 6.5 to 10 million infertile couples may adopt and conceive children. Here in this room and in homes across America, we must decide whether we should compel every taxpayer to support destroying human beings at a stage of development through which each one of us passed. We have never before done this. We do not now even federally fund abortion.

In the final analysis, we must decide whether we should accept the effect of genocide, if any, as medical therapy. Having looked into the eyes of eight precious newborns and former frozen embryos, I for one will not. Instead, I urge Congress to provide more funding for the continuing research involving adult, placenta, and umbilical human stem cells to find rapid cures for life-threatening diseases.

Thank you.