Frozen in Limbo

Four years ago, Brandon and Lisa Laugherty of Tennessee stumbled across a fertility program that revived their hopes of having children, while also opening their eyes to thousands of other babies frozen—quite
literally—in limbo.

After trying to have biological children for several years, Brandon and Lisa made a last-ditch effort by visiting with fertility doctor Jeffrey Keenan in Knoxville, near their hometown of Maryville. But his news for them was bleak: Most likely, they would never succeed. Though sad, the news wasn’t totally unexpected.

“From the beginning, it didn’t bother me that much that we couldn’t have ‘our own’ children,” Lisa tells Citizen. “In the back of my mind, I had always thought it would be wonderful to adopt. And so I would have been OK not having my own biological children.”

In fact, the couple had already considered adopting through the state’s foster care program, but dropped the idea after considering the emotional risk involved—namely, the possibility that the state could place the child elsewhere at any time.

But Keenan told them about another option: The National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), a Knoxville-based Christian organization headed by Keenan himself. For the past 13 years, the NEDC has worked to connect thousands of discarded frozen embryos with women who could give them a chance at life. 

The NEDC isn’t the only organization in the U.S. to do that kind of work. But with roughly 600 births over those 13 years, its success rate is among the highest. In fact, a study published earlier this year by the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART), one of the nation’s primary professional organizations dedicated to the practice of in vitro fertilization (IVF), has highlighted the NEDC’s success. According to it, 36.4 percent of all frozen-embryo transfers nationwide resulted in births in 2014, the latest year for which data was available.  The NEDC’s birth rate surpassed the national average by 17 percent. 

“When Brandon said, ‘Here’s your chance for you to carry our adopted children,’ both of us knew right away,” Lisa says. “Some might say it was like a light bulb, but I think it was God telling us right then that this was the way we were going to get our children and build our family.”

The Birth of the NEDC

NEDC Marketing and Development Director Mark Mellinger says the organization has from its conception tried to to “preserve human life and dignity in what we believe biblically to be the very tiniest of human lives.”

In the U.S. alone, 600,000 to one million living human embryos remain in cryogenic limbo. Some have now been that way for 15 or 20 years—and some may remain that way indefinitely. Why? In short, families struggling with fertility have taken advantage of IVF, a medical procedure for fertilizing a woman’s eggs in a test tube to create embryos that can then be transferred into her uterus later. For various reasons, however, many doctors fertilize more eggs than necessary—leaving a large surplus of unwanted but viable embryos.

Some of these surplus embryos will make it into the mother’s uterus once she returns to the fertility clinic to try for another child. But others are destroyed, and still others donated to scientific research that could harm them. 

For Christian families going through IVF, that can create a real moral dilemma. The NEDC, Mellinger explains, provides a way for parents to ensure their embryos will “be given the best possible chance to be born and live full human lives.”

This vision was first set forth in 1999 by David Stephens, CEO of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), the nation’s largest faith-based association of doctors. He immediately turned to Keenan—who had a couple decades’ worth of experience as an obstetrician, gynecologist and fertility doctor—to lead the fledgling organization, which opened its doors in 2003 and began placing embryos with families the following year.

Mellinger boasts happily of the qualifications of the NEDC’s two medical specialists in Knoxville. Keenan—who also is the director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the University of Tennessee’s Graduate College of Medicine—is board certified in obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive endocrinology and has been in practice since 1990. Embryologist Carol Sommerfelt has worked in her field since 1977 and served as lab director and embryologist at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Memphis for 10 years. But Mellinger admits these credentials can’t wholly account for the organization’s success.

“I don’t think the technical and medical competence is a small part of it,” he says, “but I think prayer is a big part of it too.”

Indeed, prayer may be vital for the success of the NEDC’s future, as well. The group wants to expand into other cities nationwide, enabling them to save more embryos and help more people build their families. This year, in fact, the NEDC plans to begin embryo adoptions through an affiliate in Milwaukee, Wisc.

“Our goal for the future is to find more like-minded fertility doctors who would have interest in this cause,” Mellinger explains. “That’s the main way we’re going to be able to continue to expand our work, because we really are about at capacity here in Knoxville.”

The Ethics of Embryo Adoption

But the expansion of an organization like the NEDC carries its own ethical risks, says Christian bioethicist and author C. Ben Mitchell.

“I think embryo adoption, generally speaking, is a good thing,” says Mitchell, who holds the Graves Chair of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and co-authored the book, Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families (B&H Academic: 2014). “We have these so-called leftover embryos. And as a rescue ministry, it is good for couples—infertile couples or others—who want to have other children to adopt these embryos.”

But as embryo adoption efforts expand, Mitchell worries they’ll become simply “a normative or routine matter. While I favor the attempts to rescue frozen embryos, I don’t want to do anything to encourage additional spare embryo production,” he explains.

Mitchell says the NEDC and other Christian organizations should beware of unintentionally justifying the creation of surplus embryos. After all, even if sent to an organization like the NEDC, many of these surplus embryos don’t survive the process of being thawed and transferred into a woman’s uterus. In fact, even those that are implanted only survive 50 percent of the time.

“We don’t just want to see this as an unmixed good,” Mitchell says. “It is quite complex, and we’re better off avoiding the problem—by not creating the embryos—than we are trying to clean up a mess that we’ve created.

“We should have courageous physicians who would refuse to generate more embryos than they’re willing to transfer to a woman’s body, and a system that supports those decisions by doctors.”

Regarding these issues, Mellinger says that, as an organization, the NEDC is primarily concerned with the rescue operation of embryo adoption. Yet, he adds that in his private practice, Keenan uses IVF only as a last resort. He’s also careful not to produce an excessive amount of embryos. Moreover, the NEDC only transfers three embryos—at most—into a woman’s uterus at any given time.

“Our hope is that all those embryos that are transferred to the uterus come to birth,” he explains.

Despite some of the ethical dilemmas raised by IVF and embryo adoption, Mitchell says one thing is certain: “This entire scenario reminds us that we’re dealing with unborn human beings. We’re not talking about pieces, parts or mere tissues. Couples don’t want tissues. Couples want a baby.”

‘Precious Lives’

In fact, after beginning the embryo adoption process in 2012, Brandon and Lisa soon set their eyes on five of them.

“It was very hard, because how do you pick what embryos are worthy and which aren’t?” Lisa asks. “We had to separate ourselves from that because, if
I thought about it too much, it would crush me.”

To help them make a decision, they studied donor profiles, listing the height, weight, eye color, hair color, skin tone, interests and other personal information about each embryo’s biological parents.

“We thought having the baby look like us, as much as we can, would be neat,” Lisa explains. “I wouldn’t want our child to stand out and to feel like she didn’t look like us. I wouldn’t want her to question her differences with us.”

Finally, they settled on five embryos, siblings. The babies’ parents had similar features and interests as Brandon and Lisa, and they wanted their children to be raised in a Christian home.

“When I saw that, I told Brandon, ‘I think these are our children.’ ”

So, in September 2013, after Lisa completed her hormone treatments, the NEDC transferred three embryos into her uterus. As a result, she became pregnant with their daughter, Gemma, who is now 2.

“It was awesome,” Lisa says. “I didn’t think I would carry our child. So once I found out that we were pregnant, no words could really describe that. And once I could feel my daughter kick and once my belly grew, we were in such awe.”

Two years later, the NEDC transferred two more embryos into Lisa’s uterus, and she became pregnant with twins. River and Reagan were born in May, one day after Gemma’s second birthday.

Today Brandon and Lisa are not only proud parents, but also advocates of embryo adoption.

“Brandon and I tell people about it any chance we get,” Lisa says. They’ve also encouraged their church to consider supporting the NEDC. 

“These are lives,” Lisa says. “Those were our babies. Those were our children there, frozen for years. … We should be careful what we’re doing with these embryos. These lives are just so precious.”  

 

For More Information: 

To learn more about the NEDC, visit www.embryodonation.org. The SART study can be found at sartcorsonline.com

Originally published in the November, 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.
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