Maria Lancaster with her daughter and Sen. Rick Santorum, an opponent of embryo research.
Six years ago, Maria Lancaster took her first step to becoming pregnant by having a frozen embryo FedExed to a Bellevue clinic. Having been through three miscarriages, the Snoqualmie resident had contacted a Christian group that matches infertile couples with those who have surplus embryos leftover from in vitro fertilization. The embryo destined for Lancaster had sat in the freezer of a North Carolina lab for four years. Her Bellevue clinic thawed it out in a dish, watched it grow from two to six cells and then implanted it into her womb. The result: her five-year-old daughter, Elisha, who likes ponies and ballet.
Now, she is partnering with Cedar Park Church in Bothell to start an “embryo adoption” service, one of only a handful in the country. “Embryos are not simply human material to be used for medical experimentation, vaccine cultivation, or trash to be discarded,” says Cedar Park pastor Joe Fuiten, a prominent evangelical conservative.
Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, counters that embryo adoption will never solve the problem of what to do with the approximately 400,000 embryos that are sitting in freezers nationwide (at a cost per couple of $500 plus a year). “It’s just not going to get that many customers,” he says. In part, he elaborates, that’s because many embryos won’t survive the freezing and thawing out process, and the ones that do may not be that healthy to begin with.
It’s the “second tier” embryos that wind up in the freezer, confirms Angela Thyer, a doctor at Seattle Reproductive Medicine. She estimates that the chance of success using frozen embryos is about half that as with “fresh” ones. Still she says it might be a good option for some infertile couples, and her organization has told Lancaster it is willing to take patients she refers.
Lee Hickock, a doctor at Pacific Northwest Fertility, affiliated with Swedish Medical Center, also believes donated embryos are worth trying. In fact, since its inception three years ago, his clinic has accepted donated embryos and offered them to patients who have failed other treatments. An added benefit, he says: “it’s cheap” -- $5,000 as opposed to the tens of thousands it costs to adopt.
For donors, the benefits are less clear. Clinics say that many couples are uncomfortable with the idea of giving away embryos that will become their biological children. So far, Embryo Adoption Services of Cedar Park has one committed donor: Lisa Maritz, an Everett mom who had twins through in vitro fertilization. Then she conceived a third child naturally. “We knew this was a gift,” she says, and now she wants to give a gift in return.