Few people question the miracle that is in vitro fertilization (IVF). From its inception, IVF has been considered a godsend to couples who are hoping to achieve a successful pregnancy. Before delving into the dynamic stories of genetic siblings born to different mothers, let’s identify exactly what IVF is. According to Dr. Mark Trolice, who is a board-certified reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist of 20 years and an associate professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine, “IVF is an assisted reproductive technology procedure whereby fertilization of the egg and sperm occur in the laboratory. The woman receives stimulation with one of the injectable fertility medications. “When the ovaries contain multiple mature eggs, she then undergoes a short minor procedure under intravenous sedation to retrieve the eggs by placing a needle … into the ovary under ultrasound guidance. Approximately four to six hours later, sperm are added to each of the eggs and then checked for fertilization the next day. The embryo(s) is/are transferred to the uterus three to five days after the ‘retrieval’ procedure. A pregnancy test is taken approximately two weeks following the egg retrieval.”
Recent developments have led to exciting possibilities.
In layman’s terms, IVF consists of egg retrieval from the woman, sperm donation from the man, embryo conception in the lab, and then a transfer timed perfectly to the woman’s cycle. But as with many modern medical advancements, IVF has taken some unexpected paths. One such path is embryo donation/adoption. Simply put, when a couple goes through the IVF process, sometimes there are extra embryos that are not transferred. These embryos are frozen and stored as property of the couple who initially pursued their creation. At some point, the couple must decide if they will use their remaining embryos to potentially become pregnant again, continue paying to store them, have the unneeded embryos destroyed, or pursue embryo donation/adoption. Embryo donation/adoption is the transfer of embryos from one family to another. It is a legal process, but in the realm of legalities, it’s quite simple because embryos are identified as property. Trolice states that “the process of embryo donation/adoption is well established. I do not see any ethical quandary as long as all parties enter into this agreement with full informed consent. Medical and legal consents must be created by a reproductive attorney for protection of all undergoing embryo adoption.” Once embryos are transferred to a new couple, they can then begin steps to become pregnant through IVF with non-biological children—in effect, the genetic siblings of the child born from the original IVF cycle. This could be considered the earliest scenario of adoption: adoption after conception versus after birth.
“Extended family” takes on a new meaning.
This is also how genetic siblings can be born to different mothers. Take these three Canadian families, for example. It’s a complex, interesting story of a new kind of family. To simply recap, Family A achieved a successful pregnancy through IVF (that originated from egg and sperm donation). There were leftover embryos from the procedure. Rather than store those embryos indefinitely or have them destroyed, Family A connected with Beginnings, the largest private adoption agency in Ontario, and chose two adoptive families for their remaining embryos since they felt their family was complete. Those two families, Family B and Family C, became pregnant with children who are related to Family A’s child. Now, the children of Families A, B, and C are all related. They are genetic siblings born to three different mothers. Another scenario where genetic siblings are born to two different women is detailed in the Bernaba family’s story. After years of struggling to become pregnant with their second child, George and Amy Bernaba chose a surrogate to carry a child for them. In the course of evaluating their situation it was decided that eggs fertilized by Mr. Bernaba would be implanted into both Amy and their surrogate, Torry Keay.
The gift of life presents in many forms. When an infertility patient turns to non-biologic options of family building, they dedicate themselves to the purest form of our existence, which is loving for the sake of love, without genetic strings.
Miraculously, both women became pregnant and via cesarean and induction gave birth to twins on May 27, 2007—“the world’s first twins to be born on the same day to two different women,” according to Daily Mail. These two stories are just the beginning of a new kind of birth, a new kind of adoption, a new kind of family. Trolice agrees: “The gift of life presents in many forms. When an infertility patient turns to non-biologic options of family building, they dedicate themselves to the purest form of our existence, which is loving for the sake of love, without genetic strings.” No field expert is ready to say that genetic siblings being born to different mothers could be described as “popular,” but it is definitely a new avenue couples are exploring. Perhaps “growing trend” is the best identifier for this form of family building. And as this trend continues to grow, it only seems natural that more and more children will begin to explore their family of origin, seeking the story of how they began. So, what are the benefits and risks of telling a child born through embryo adoption that they have genetic links in families elsewhere?
Thread of Heritage
The benefits are quite clear, according to Trolice, who cites the work of clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft. In her 2005 book Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families, she noted that “the social tides have changed. As they have changed, experts have done a 180-degree turn in their thinking about disclosure. Twenty years ago people thought disclosure would be traumatic for the child, humiliating to the parent, and disruptive of the parent child bond. Now it is believed to be a violation of the child’s rights, a denial of reality, and a threat to the integrity of the parent not to tell a child the truth about his or her birth history.” Grief and loss counselor Lloyde Newman echoes Ehrensaft’s thoughts with an eloquent spin developed around a concept she calls the “thread of heritage.” Newman shares, “The Thread of Heritage becomes valuable and important even before the babies are born. Sometimes the mothers-to-be get together for support and to start building this unique family tree of memories, sense of community, and begin making family traditions that are essential to the development of children who are successful and confident.” Thanks to a commitment to the Thread of Heritage, Newman says, “These special siblings grow up with the richness of family stories that are passed down from folks who thought they would never have the joy of telling long-ago Christmases memories, first days of school, and summer camping trips. The Thread of Heritage seems like a win–win solution for all. Some IVF donors have gone so far as to save other embryos for the future so women and men can experience the joy of parenthood and their cultural nuances and knowledge of life move forward to bless others.”
When given due thought, eventual full disclosure is becoming more common. Trolice states that “This is why Donor Sibling Registry was founded: to assist people in connecting with biologic siblings.” So whether parents opt to share their conception story with their child from the get-go or further down the road, most children are choosing to learn more about their genetic background. But experts are merely outside observers of what is really going on inside these brand-new kinds of families. They can hypothesize and analyze what might be best, but isn’t it usually the case that every family, every child, is different? For Ashleigh Stebner and Lauren Reykdal, full disclosure is proving to be a beautiful experience. These two women from the Pacific Northwest share a special bond. The children Stebner birthed in 2013 and 2016 and the daughter Reykdal is due to deliver in late 2017 will be genetic siblings. After much infertility heartache, Reykdal began exploring snowflake adoption. Snowflake adoption is the same as embryo donation/adoption, just a catchier phrase since those little embryos are frozen, waiting to see where they will fall. “It is unique, it is a modern family,” says Reykdal, “With almost a million frozen embryos in the United States, it is my prayer that many others will come to find the joy and beauty of adopting ‘little snowflakes.’” In essence, snowflake adoption is an opportunity for a stored embryo to have a chance at life.
Embryo adoption felt so right, and from the moment our donors contacted us, we’ve felt nothing but peace and hope. We finally let our bodies rest, knowing that our baby was already formed, always meant for us.
Reykdal remembers her feelings when she first considered embryo adoption. “My husband and I felt like we had been climbing a mountain—gaining footing, moving upward, and then slipping right back down with every fertility fail and negative cycle. We were so ready to become parents, and our 4-year-old would ask regularly when she would get to be a big sister. “We knew that genetics did not matter to us, and with our hearts as tender as they were after the rollercoaster of fertility fails, we were terrified of a traditional adoption scenario leaving us with empty arms. Embryo adoption felt so right, and from the moment our donors contacted us, we’ve felt nothing but peace and hope. We finally let our bodies rest, knowing that our baby was already formed, always meant for us.” And yes, you read that correctly, while Reykdal rode the roller coaster of infertility and the alternative options in growing her family, Stebner was on a journey of her own, beginning to reach out to potential families who might adopt embryos that remained from her successful IVF cycle. “I have always known that I would eventually donate my embryos. For me it was just a matter of when I was emotionally ready to make that step. I somewhat expected it to be harder to sign the contract and give up my biological ‘children,’ but it hasn’t been. I know that they are going to all go to families that have dreamed of them, they will be so loved and cherished. I also know that I could never have them all myself, that was never the plan. I truly believe God blessed me with an abundance of embryos so that I could bless other families,” Stebner shared. Stebner and Reykdal connected through a private social media group. Stebner recalls, “The first thing that caught my eye was her profile picture, three Mickey Mouse ear hats at Disneyland—one of our family’s favorite places. I worked up the courage to send a message. I got a response the next day and it brought me to tears… As we got to know each other, I realized I would want to have a relationship beyond anything I had ever imagined. We met in person in October 2016 and I knew that we had the perfect recipients.” “I never could have imagined my relationship with my donor being the way that it is,” says Reykdal. “When I met Ashleigh, we connected. I remember thinking to myself—I wish I could keep her for a friend! Not only was she just an all-around great person, she had given me the gift of my daughter’s life. There were so many parallels in our journey where I truly feel like God was preparing us both. Doors closing, other prayers going (what felt like) unanswered. There have been times where I have felt selfish. I feel like I am getting the best of both worlds—a baby and this wonderful friendship.” And Stebner echoes Reykdal’s sentiment, saying, “I feel like through this process God has given me a sister that I never had. I am overjoyed by the relationship our kids already have and I dream about how our families will grow together.” And grow together they will! First, with a new baby later this year, and then, Stebner believes, many more. “We have already had talks about bringing other families into our dynamic. I always wanted this kind of big family, I just never realized this was how God would make it happen!” IVF has become an everyday phrase around the birth and parenting community, but soon, it seems, these stories of genetic siblings born to different mothers will become more and more common. It’s a new kind of a family, but a beautiful one—full of hope, commitment, and immense love. The future of “family” is truly amazing.