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In fight over embryonic stem cell research, some Christians turn to embryo adoption

Thursday, November 8, 2007 | 10:12 p.m. CST; updated 11:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Chad and Tanya Tatro adopted these embryos through the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program, which helps match potential adoptive parents with women and couples who have frozen embryos they want to donate.

COLUMBIA — Like many couples who can’t have children of their own, Chad and Tanya Tatro decided they would start a family through adoption. But they didn’t go to a local agency to begin paperwork on a domestic adoption. Nor did they decide to look into international adoption.

Instead, the Tatros turned to Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, and the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program, which helps match potential adoptive parents with women and couples who have frozen embryos they want to donate.

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Today, Chad and Tanya say they are still amazed at how God led them to the embryo adoption program as they watch their 1-year-old son Ethan toddle around the floor, his soft blond hair sticking up in all directions, his dark-blue eyes exploring the world around him.

“He’s really strong and energetic; he’s the cutest baby I’ve ever known,” Tanya Tatro said with a somewhat self-conscious laugh. “I couldn’t imagine a better gift from God.”

Embryo adoption is a growing phenomenon, especially among Christians whose faith has put them in the middle of the debates over abortion and stem-cell research. For people like the Tatros, this relatively new, controversial form of adoption is as much a moral issue as it is a personal decision. Moreover, many conservative Christians are re-focusing their energy on the culture wars in a way that emphasizes adoption and foster care as part of a solution. Embryo adoption is an option created by the explosion of in vitro fertilization, which often results in embryos that are subsequently destroyed or donated to stem-cell researchers. Stoddart, the executive director of California-based Nightlight Christian Adoptions, established Snowflakes in 1997 to give leftover frozen embryos a chance at life. A year later, the first stem cells were extracted from a human embryo, and Stoddart said the new science and the ethical debate it has generated have helped his business. “If it weren’t for that, trying to get the word out would be much harder,” he said. “Embryo adoption is more relevant when juxtaposed to the embryonic stem-cell debate.”

The transfer of embryos from one person to another has been possible for years; however, it was usually done through anonymous donations rather than a formal process involving an evaluation of prospective recipients. Stoddart thinks the transfer of an embryo from one person to another “is more than a medical procedure,” and his adoption program follows a process that reflects that thought. Rather than keeping the donor and the recipient anonymous, he wanted to open up the process so children have the option of meeting their genetic parents.

Donna Nicholson, director of Bethany Christian Services of Missouri, which does home studies for embryo donation agencies like Snowflake, said she thinks Stoddart’s process offers everyone involved more dignity than an anonymous donation. “If I had embryos to donate, I’d want to know where they are going, which is the purpose of these home studies,” she said.

Stoddart said the Snowflakes program emphasizes the value of each individual embryo’s life. That’s reflected in the program’s name — each individual embryo is frozen and unique, just like snowflakes.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Not all Christians are comfortable with the idea of teaming up with the fertility industry. For decades, many Christians have come out against the idea of using scientific technology to create “test-tube babies,” and some are worried that paying fees to adopt embryos will encourage the industry’s growth.

“Just because we can do something scientifically doesn’t mean it’s a good idea,” said Paul Moessner, pastor at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Columbia. “Our ability to manipulate and engineer the outcome of a pregnancy is questionable. It strikes me that embryo adoption is really stretching.”

For Moessner and other critics of embryo adoption, the debate over the practice seems to be quibbling about where the line should be drawn around human understanding and human interference in reproduction.

But Stoddart argues that embryo adoption is all about putting God back in charge of procreation.

“You could say IVF is unnatural, that it goes against God’s law,” he said. “But once those embryos are created, you have a choice. You have to deal with the embryos as they are now. They exist. God wants us to acknowledge they are alive and give them a chance to be born.”

FOLLOWING GOD’S PLAN

Lise and Mark Dill of Tulsa, Okla., spent three years trying to decide what to do with their leftover embryos after creating them for in vitro fertilization. When they conceived naturally, the Dills found themselves with four embryos for which they had no use. Lise Dill said her and her husband’s faith was the most important consideration when they decided to donate the embryos to an adoptive couple.

“We did not want another child, but we wanted to do something to help our pre-babies (embryos),” she said. “Mark and I had prayed over these babies for God’s will. This is God’s will.”

Lise and Mark prayed about who would receive the embryos and, three months later, Snowflakes matched them up with a couple from Kansas City, Ann and David. In May 2007, Ann — who asked that her and her family’s last name not be used — gave birth to Reese. “The first time I held him, I was relieved and humbled,” Ann recalled. “It was totally in God’s hands. It’s humbling to realize he’s giving us this gift through Lise and Mark. We have no doubt that this is a divine plan that included us.”

The two families still keep in contact through e-mail. Ann said she is grateful the Dills had the strength and wisdom to donate their leftover embryos. Lise said she is happy that her embryos allowed another couple to begin a family. “I know how desperate the desire of your heart is to have a child,” said Lise Dill, who is the mother of five as well as a foster mother. “It warms my heart that their family is complete, that they know this joy.”

Still, Lise Dill acknowledges that parting with her embryos caused no small amount of grief. Reese, who came from the same batch of embryos that were created when the couple tried in vitro fertilization, is technically her biological child. “I think Reese is gorgeous,” she said. “In the beginning, he looked exactly like my oldest son. He looks so much like Emmaus (the Dill’s youngest daughter) now.”

AN EMOTIONAL PROCESS

Chad Tatro first heard about embryo adoption from a radio broadcast by the evangelical Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family. “When I first heard about it, I was amazed,” he said. “These embryos are children and deserve a chance at life, and I was surprised that this was now an option.”

Tanya Tatro began looking into the Snowflakes program while she was trying to become pregnant, just in case the effort failed. When, after a year and a half, the couple was told it was medically impossible that they would ever conceive a child together, they decided to try embryo adoption.

In 2002, they turned in their application to Snowflakes, submitted pictures and a letter about themselves and went through the home study process. The program then matched the Tatros with couples willing to donate embryos.

Tanya said the experience was emotionally difficult. It took seven embryo transfers from three successive donating families before Tanya became pregnant with Ethan.

Only about half of frozen embryos survive the thawing process, and about a third of those result in a successful pregnancy and birth. At one point, after three embryos were implanted in Tanya, she became pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. In February 2006, three more embryos were implanted in Tanya, who became pregnant with twins, only to lose one of the babies at the end of the first trimester. Ethan survived, and was born in October 2006.

“Our experience was somewhat unique, because usually there’s higher success, but we had faith to keep trying,” Chad Tatro said. “We heard about some other options, like using donor sperm, but we didn’t feel that was our call. With this, the embryos are already out there. That’s the beauty of this program.”

Right now, Ethan Tatro is oblivious to the story of his birth. He is more interested in playing games and throwing things off his high chair than learning the particulars of his existence. As he gets older, Chad and Tanya hope their son will understand the faith and love that went into their decision to adopt him. They want him to know his own story.

“Hopefully,” Tanya said, “he’ll know from the beginning that he was a Snowflakes baby.”


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