By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
Nate Birt remembers his wife’s reaction when he told her he thought it might be a good time to have a fourth baby. It wasn’t a “no.” But it also wasn’t an absolute “yes.”
His wife, Julie, had done some research on endometriosis during her master’s program, specifically working with people who study infertility. She had gained a lot of new knowledge from that experience, but she also had come away with a deepened respect for the earliest stages of life, Birt said.
“So when I asked about having another baby she was already at the point of thinking that embryo adoption was what we needed to do,” he said.
She couldn’t get past the fact that more than a million frozen embryos are currently in storage nationwide, with less than 10% eligible for adoption.
Daniel Hurst — curriculum and research director for the Cahaba-UAB Family Medicine Residency in Centreville — says most of those embryos have been frozen in the course of in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment for people struggling with infertility.
“The IVF process takes an egg and sperm and combines them manually outside of the woman, then the researcher or physician can insert them back into the woman,” said Hurst, who also serves as an associate research fellow with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It’s a very expensive treatment, and most of the time if they have leftover embryos they will freeze them in order to insert them later.”
As the years continue if a woman is not able to give birth to all of her frozen embryos she has a choice to make, he said. The options are to keep them frozen indefinitely, donate them for scientific research, donate them to an adoption agency or have them destroyed.
“From a pro-life perspective, these are human beings,” Hurst said, noting that calling an embryo adoption agency is “the most life-affirming” of the options.
Kimberly Tyson of Snowflakes Embryo Adoption says when she fields those calls from potential placing parents they have usually been thinking about their embryos for quite some time, knowing they need to do something with them. They do not plan to give birth to them, but they want them to have the opportunity for life.
“Allowing their children to be born into another family is a big hurdle,” Tyson said. “We try to help them process the emotions attached to that.”
Embryo adoption is like traditional adoption in that placing families can choose potential adoptive families by reading their stories and looking through photo books of their lives.
But in other ways it’s a completely different process, Tyson said. “The exciting difference is that you give birth to your adopted child.”
Snowflakes also encourages the two matched families to communicate with each other and develop a relationship — a process that takes time, but can be so rewarding, she said.
“There will be full genetic siblings in each family,” she said. “We want them to have some level of communication with each other.”
Because in the U.S. embryos are considered property by law, when an embryo adoption happens Snowflakes uses property contract law to transfer the embryos legally from one family to another — not adoption law. Through the Snowflakes program placing parents will gift all of their remaining embryos to the adopting family, giving them an opportunity to undergo multiple implantations and potentially even genetic siblings, Tyson said.
When a baby is born from those embryos the woman who gave birth to that baby is the one who is listed as the legal parent on the birth certificate, along with her husband.
“The placing family’s mother is not going to see your baby and take [him or her] back,” Tyson said. “By law that baby is your baby.”
The relationships between adoptive and biological families look different, but many of them have developed close bonds.
“They’re just lovely, lovely families with great relationships,” Tyson said.
That’s what Birt is seeing happen in his family’s life since the birth of their daughter, Phoebe, now 1, whom they adopted as an embryo.
After going through a home study just as a family would for a traditional adoption the Birts were matched with a placing family. They read the placing family’s medical history and the narrative story and corresponded by email. Phoebe had been frozen for about 10 years before she was born.
‘Mothers are heroes’
“We talked to our placing mom and she said, ‘Every time I picked up the phone to call the adoption agency I would just start crying.’ There’s so much emotion about putting your babies up for adoption,” Birt said. “But these mothers are heroes — they’re giving their children a chance at life.”
Birt’s family, who lives in Missouri, kept in touch with Phoebe’s placing family through the process, sending them notes of encouragement along the way. Then after Phoebe was born her biological family, who lives just a couple of hours from the Birts, invited them over for a barbecue.
“Phoebe will always know her history and where she came from. We are her mom and dad and that will never change, but she will always have access to her biological parents and siblings,” he said.
It’s been an interesting and unexpected journey, but Birt said his family is so glad they took the first step. To help others consider if embryo adoption might be a good fit for them he chronicled his family’s story in his new book, “Frozen But Not Forgotten: An Adoptive Dad’s Step-By-Step Guide to Embryo Adoption.”
As Birt’s family was considering embryo adoption he said he often heard the question, “Why would you adopt an embryo when there are children already born who need homes?”
He says from his perspective both kinds of adoptive parents are needed.
“These are children with souls just like any other form of adoption,” he said. “If you believe God has a plan for each and every person it really reframes the urgency of adoption. These frozen embryos have every potential to become future church leaders, doctors [or] political leaders.”
Tyson said the people who call inquiring about adopting embryos are usually people who are struggling with infertility themselves and have tried IVF with their own eggs and sperm unsuccessfully.
“We want these families to know there is another solution,” Tyson said. “You don’t have to create more embryos with the potential of having even more end up in frozen storage.”
An egg isn’t waiting to be born, but an embryo is — it is a human life, she said. “We really want our Christian community to know there are more than a million frozen embryos in storage in the United States and more are created and placed in storage every year. We want to help as many of these babies to be born as possible.”
‘Frozen and unique’
Snowflakes is the oldest embryo adoption agency in the world, and Phoebe Birt was their 575th baby born.
“We call them ‘snowflakes babies’ because they’re frozen and unique and a gift from God,” Tyson said.
Since the program began in 1997 almost 650 babies have been born to adopting families through Snowflakes. They’ve had more than 1,500 placing families in their program — more than 6,500 embryos in total.
In 2017 a healthy baby boy was born who had been frozen for 21 years. Another family is in the process of performing an embryo transfer with embryos frozen in 1989.
To read more about the Birt family’s personal embryo adoption journey and Nate Birt’s book visit
For more information about Snowflakes Embryo Adoption visit nightlight.org.