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Saving tiny lives


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The Snowflakes program is giving frozen embryos a shot at life, and family

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PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 18th.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Paul Butler.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: adoption.

Today, we launch Season Four of Effective Compassion. It’s our podcast on help that really helps. Ways that Christians can live out the call of Jesus to care for those in need.

This season, our emphasis is on caring for kids in crisis: How adoption and foster care works, the challenges involved, and how the church can step up.

BUTLER: When you hear the word “adoption,” maybe the last thing you’d think of is embryo adoption. Earlier this year, we talked with the parents of two babies born from embryos frozen 30 years ago.

But there are still as many as three million frozen embryos in the U-S. Some say that’s a whole population waiting to be rescued. Here’s WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: The silver tanks look like something out of a sci-fi movie. They’re big, waist-high jugs that smoke when you open them. That’s because they’re filled with liquid nitrogen, and hundreds of tiny human embryos, all frozen at about 200 degrees below zero.

VIDEO: This is the preparation for embryo thawing.

This fertility clinic in California posted a tour of its facility on YouTube. Dr. Jason Barritt is the lab director at the Southern California Reproductive Center.

JASON BARRITT: So what you see us doing here is taking liquid nitrogen and preparing a liquid nitrogen bath for us to be able to pull embryos out of liquid nitrogen storage, and then test and find out which ones we need, before we actually do the process of thawing or warming the embryo.

The embryos are tiny little specks, all created through IVF, in vitro fertilization. That’s when doctors create an embryo outside the body. Later, they’ll implant the embryo in a woman’s uterus to grow and develop for the next nine months.

KIMBERLY TYSON: If we believe life begins at conception, then we believe that each of these embryos is a human being waiting to be born.

That’s Kimberly Tyson. She’s the Vice President of the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program. She wants to give each of those tiny little specks of life a chance at living.

IVF often creates extra embryos just in case the first few don’t make it. And those extras often sit frozen in storage for years. Sometimes decades. Keeping embryos in storage is expensive, anywhere from $400 to $1,000 dollars per year. That’s on top of the initial freezing fee of 10 to 15 thousand. So what happens when a couple decides they don’t want their embryos any more?

TYSON: So you really just walk away from them and abandon them. Or…you can donate them for reproduction.

The Snowflakes program started in 1997. It’s still small: Last year, it helped about 200 adoptive families and 200 placing families.

Tyson says she treats embryo adoption basically the same way as a traditional adoption.

TYSON: We require families to complete a home study. We also are encouraging open relationships between the placing family and the adopting family because we believe that the children born from embryo adoption deserve to know about their genetic origins.

But none of those adoption best-practices are required by law, not for embryos, anyway.

TYSON: In the United States, embryos are considered property and not people. And so the exchange of embryos between somebody who has them is an exchange of property.

The only real regulation on embryo transfers is from the FDAL rules about the placement of human tissue and infectious disease precautions.

Many fertility specialists don’t like the term “embryo adoption” at all: It implies that the embryos are children.

Snowflakes had to create its own adoption contract based in property law, but wrapped in adoption language.

TYSON: Our contracts are covering all of the aspects of the exchange of this property. But identifying that the property is something more than just property; it’s a person.

But for some, that brings up other concerns. Kallie Fell is the Executive Director at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. She does believe that embryos are human lives, but she also thinks that embryo donation centers should be working themselves out of business.

KALLIE FELL: There's a large lack of studies on what happens, what are the health risks to these future children for being frozen for any length, amount, any length of time, and then and then and then thawed and then you know, adopted.

Some studies have shown a slightly higher risk of cancer for children born from frozen embryos.

Scott Rae is a professor of Christian ethics at Biola University. He references a different concern that some ethicists have that having adoption as a safety net encourages the creation of more embryos.

SCOTT RAE: And I think the criticism I think is, you know, has some merit to it, because it I think it can promote doesn't always, but it can promote a cavalier attitude toward the creating of embryos outside the body.

And another thorny question:

RAE: I think you could still have a problem with human full human persons being frozen for the benefit of somebody else. I think you can raise a pretty serious moral question about that.

But Kimberly Tyson says embryo adoption isn’t the problem…it’s solving a problem that already exists.

TYSON: And the problem is excess embryos in frozen storage that nobody is doing anything with.

Couples are already having to figure out what to do with their remaining embryos.

TYSON: And if I believe that life begins at conception, I'm going to have a really hard time with the other three options that are available to me to keep them frozen forever to thaw them and discard them or to donate them to science which is going to destroy the embryos.

Scott Rae believes we should be careful and thoughtful about how we approach freezing embryos. He says there are some valid concerns, but he doesn’t think that should stop people from adopting these tiny lives.

RAE: I guess I would I would encourage people to view this as as the kind of heroic rescue that it actually is.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.

BUTLER: Join us for the next ten weeks as we learn together how the church can help kids in crisis during season 4 of Effective Compassion. You can subscribe for free anywhere you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to hear our previous story from earlier this year, we’ve put a link to that in today’s transcript.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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