Embryo adoption stokes stem-cell debate

By ANGELA WOODALL  |  May 27, 2005 at 9:36 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 27 (UPI) -- Jonah is pretty much like any 2-year-old: He gets tired and hungry and cranky. He likes Play-Doh and his blanky is balled up in his bed, but in another way, Jonah David Vest is unlike almost all other 2-year-olds.

The embryo that became Jonah was frozen six years ago in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees Celsius. Jonah's genetic sister, Gabrielle, now three months old, was frozen nine years ago.

Jonah and Gabrielle became part of the Vest family through embryo adoption. Called cryopreservation, it is an increasingly common, increasingly controversial option.

Although they do not know it yet, the technology that allowed Jonah and Gabrielle to be born is tangled up in a raging moral and political debate over when life begins -- a debate fundamental to the controversy about stem-cell research, abortion and fertility clinics.

The debate is likely to grow louder, given the U.S. House of Representatives vote this week to expand federal funding for stem-cell research -- legislation President George W. Bush has threatened to veto. In California, voters approved a $3 billion bond last November to fund a stem-cell research center: the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The effort was supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Vests were unable to conceive, and Cara's husband Gregg was diagnosed with a sperm disorder. Then Cara was told she had the "ovaries of a 40-year-old." They considered using a donated egg or adopting a child, until she heard about an embryo-adoption agency while listening to "Focus on the Family," a Christian radio show. She called the agency, Snowflakes, and two years later she and Gregg had adopted 23 embryos.

The Vests believe that life begins at conception, so adopting 23 embryos meant becoming the parents of 23 children. Never mind only two-thirds would survive the thawing, and even fewer would develop into babies. The Vests thought at least these embryos would all have a chance at life instead of being disposed of or used in stem-cell research.

Embryo-adoption programs developed from the belief that an embryo is already a human being, needing only a womb to bring it into the world. The Snowflakes embryo-adoption program began in 1997 as an extension of Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Fullerton, Calif.

Snowflakes matches infertile couples -- and the occasional single woman -- with embryos left over from in vitro procedures, although gay couples are not encouraged to apply.

The United States lacks a firm policy for the disposal of frozen embryos; there is no limit to how long they can stay frozen before they are destroyed. In England, in contrast, frozen embryos are destroyed after five years.

Director Lori Haze explained how the British policy troubled Nightlight's executive director, Ron Stoddart. England is a "civilized, rational and modern country and here they were destroying embryos," Haze told United Press International.

Stoddart founded Snowflakes in response, making it the first agency in the United States to apply the policies of traditional adoption to frozen embryos.

"Our detractors don't like the fact that we're attributing human status to the embryos," Haze said, but denied it is part of an attempt to roll back abortion rights. "First and foremost it's about the best interest of any resulting children."

Cara Vest sees it as a cure to infertility, which she likens to a disease, and parents adopting embryos do not have to worry about birth parents changing their minds afterward, or about how the birth mother is taking care of herself and the baby she is carrying that one day will be theirs.

At less than $10,000 -- including the cost of shipping embryos by Federal Express -- embryo adoption is also considerably less expensive. In contrast, IVF can cost up to $100,000 for two children, and fewer insurance companies are willing to cover the procedure than 10 years ago.

Critics think embryo adoption is not a practical solution, however.

Arthur Caplan, a noted bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said it is "deceiving people" to suggest that all frozen embryos can one day be children. The clear implication, he said, is no embryos should be used for research.

Even if there were enough families who want to adopt all the 100,000 to 400,000 embryos now frozen, "they must understand not all the embryos turn into babies," Caplan told UPI. "Organizations like Snowflakes are saying the embryos are morally equivalent. I believe, and the data shows, that they are not biologically equivalent."

Embryo adoption has gotten attention from some Republican lawmakers, because it adheres to a "culture of life," as Bush has called it.

Since 2002, Congress has allocated $2 million to raise public awareness of embryo adoption. In 2001, when the president announced he was limiting federal funding for stem-cell research to embryos created before that day, he said: "Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique."

Jonah and his sister are not the only Snowflake babies. Others were nearby last Tuesday as Bush expressed his support for embryo adoption instead of using embryos for research.

The next few years may determine how many children like Jonah and Gabrielle there will be.


Angela Woodall is an intern for UPI Science News. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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