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1,000 babies born through agency offering “adoption” of frozen embryos (Local Tips & Reviews)

The embryos that became the 5- and 1-year-old sons of Alana and Steven Lisano were created two decades earlier, frozen in the hopes that someday, someone would thaw them and “give them a chance at life.” 

The Lisanos, who fell in love in veterinary school at Colorado State University, had struggled to conceive and had already gone through a $20,000 in vitro fertilization treatment without getting pregnant. 

They considered adopting a child, but changed course after learning about embryo adoption from their church in Fort Collins. Not only could Alana experience pregnancy as she had always hoped, but the way the Lisanos saw it, they could give a life created in 1997 an opportunity to be born. 

The couple didn’t have to look far. One of the most prolific embryo adoption agencies in the United States was based in their hometown of Loveland, about 50 miles north of Denver. 

Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program was the first embryo adoption organization in the United States when it opened in 1997. It recently celebrated the 1,000th birth of a child to a family that had “adopted” a frozen embryo. The organization operates much like a typical adoption agency, requiring background checks and home studies, and matching donor families with families who want to use their frozen embryos.

The operation was small in its first 15 years, with only a few babies born each year.  But Snowflakes’ work has increased by 420% in the past eight years. That’s due to its ambitious leader, Kimberly Tyson, who has built a cross-country network of about 40 clinics willing to implant donor embryos that in many cases have been frozen for years or even decades, as well as the support of churches that help spread the word.

“It’s still very unknown,” Tyson said. “Most people have never heard of this.” 

Since its 1,000th and 1,001st births in December, twins born to a couple in Birmingham, Alabama, the agency has counted 34 more new babies. And in the first three months of this year, Snowflakes has signed up 75 new couples who want to adopt embryos, on pace to top last year’s total of 200.

“Our hands are full now”

The Lisanos built a PowerPoint presentation describing why they would make great parents, a family profile that Snowflakes could share with potential match families who had preserved “left-over” embryos after in vitro fertilization attempts. 

They described how they met in vet school and married in 2009, and that they had two cats, Chester and Eva. Alana, a product manager for a veterinary diagnostics company, is a runner who loves baking. Steven, a veterinarian, is into model trains and enjoys doing home remodeling projects. They’re members of Mountain View Community Church, a nondenominational Christian church that opposes abortion and has an active orphan ministry, encouraging its members to adopt and foster babies and children who need homes. 

Tyler Lisano, 5, interacts with his younger brother, Jayden, 21 months, at their home in Loveland on March 22. The boys are biological siblings born through frozen embryos. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

It took about six months to complete the application requirements, including a home study. But a match came quickly. Within about a month, while the Lisanos were on vacation in Alaska, they learned that a California couple with seven frozen embryos had picked them. 

The family in Orange County had twins through in vitro fertilization in 1997, and had paid to keep the rest of their unused embryos in frozen storage ever since. They are in their 60s, and their twins are now 24. 

Under their contract with Snowflakes, the Lisanos would have to agree to adopt all seven embryos and implant any that survived the thawing process. Under no circumstances could they thaw the embryos with the purpose of throwing them away. And no genetic testing on the embryos was allowed. They were also prohibited from selective reproduction, meaning they could not abort a fetus if they implanted multiple embryos and learned they were having triplets or more. 

If there were more viable embryos than they wanted to use, they would have to return them to the donor family and Snowflakes, not donate them to science or let them die. 

No problem, the Lisanos said.

The couple tried to find a fertility clinic in Colorado that would accept the frozen embryos and implant them in Alana’s uterus. But none were willing since the embryos were 20 years old. 

Instead, the Lisanos traveled to the clinic in Newport Beach, California, where the embryos had been stored since the IVF treatment that resulted in a set of twins, a boy and a girl, so many years earlier.

“There is no question how much those embryos are loved,” Alana said. “The donor family kept these embryos frozen for 19 years before we adopted them. That means they had to pay every year to keep those embryos frozen in storage. Clearly, they were very loved and they needed another chance.”

While the Lisanos were still at home in Colorado, the clinic thawed all seven embryos to see how many were still viable and would continue to grow. Because they were so old, the embryos had been frozen slowly instead of the more modern process of embryo cryopreservation, which involves a faster freeze, then storage in liquid nitrogen. With a slow freeze, the risk of cell damage is higher. 

Also, the embryos had grown for only two or three days before they were frozen, compared to the current standard of five or six days. They each consisted of four to eight cells.

The plan was to thaw all seven embryos, then let them grow until they were five days old and refreeze them until it was time for the transfer to Alana’s uterus. 

Three did not grow at all. “As soon as they thawed, they were dead,” Alana said. Two more stopped growing the next day. 

Only two of the seven were viable.

The first was implanted in Alana’s uterus in November 2016. The whole procedure, including traveling to California and a hotel in Newport Beach, cost the Lisanos about $5,000. 

Their son, Tyler, was born in August 2017. He’s now 5 and a half, a boy who seems destined for engineering because he spends so much time trying to figure out the mechanics of how things work. He’s a gentle big brother who loves babies. 

And because this is how fertility stories seem to go, the Lisanos were shocked a year or so later when they realized they had become pregnant on their own. They had a girl, Hannah, now 3 years old. 

“It’s just the way it would go,” Alana said. “It was all God’s timing.” 

And sitting in a California freezer, they still had one adopted embryo. There was no question they wanted to use it. “That’s Tyler’s full sibling,” Alana said. “We definitely wanted to give that embryo a chance at life as well.” 

Jayden Lisano, 21 months, is the Lisanos’ second son born from adopted frozen embryos. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

It was September 2020, as the world was largely shut down because of COVID-19, when the Lisanos again traveled to Newport Beach for an embryo transfer. During each of the embryo transfers for their sons, the doctor mentioned that it was the oldest embryo he had ever used. The first had been frozen for 19 years. The second for 23 years.  

The Lisanos’ second son, Tyler’s biological sibling, was born in June 2021. Jayden will turn 2 this summer, the “wild child” and the most physical of the family. 

“Our hands are full now,” said Alana, 37. 

Still, the Lisanos mourned the five embryos that did not survive the thawing process. After her family was complete, Alana pondered how to remember them and had mentioned to Steven, 41, that she wanted to find a way to memorialize them in some way. 

The next day, she said, Alana inherited a ring from her grandmother, who had recently died. 

It had five small diamonds. 

U.S. has up to 1 million frozen embryos in storage

Snowflakes’ name refers to the fact that embryos are frozen, but also to the uniqueness of each one.

The agency considers every embryo a human life, because, according to its founders’ beliefs, life begins at conception. Even calling the match an “adoption” is controversial because some people consider frozen embryos not a life but a cluster of cells. Legally, embryos are property, not people. 

Snowflakes’ mission has made it a popular choice for families who are opposed to abortion and the destruction of unused embryos. Its donors are people who are willing to pay storage fees for years or even decades — at a cost of $600 or more per year — to preserve their embryos. And the families who adopt embryos through Snowflakes are not all people who have struggled with fertility. Some just want to “help families give life to their embryos,” said Tyson, head of Snowflakes. 

The agency’s success has grown because of her marketing efforts and as the number of frozen embryos in storage in the United States has climbed, now estimated between 600,000 to 1 million. From 2011 to 2020, the number of transfers using frozen eggs or embryos quadrupled to 129,692 from 32,180, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The number of transfers using frozen donor eggs or donated embryos tripled in the same nine-year period, reaching 22,563 in 2020.

Increased use of in vitro fertilization in the past decade has resulted in tens of thousands of unused embryos sitting in deep freeze. During the procedure, eggs are retrieved from the ovary, then fertilized by sperm in a lab to create embryos. One treatment can result in multiple embryos, of which one or two at a time are typically transferred to a woman’s uterus. 

Some Snowflakes donors have one embryo to give. The highest from one donor was 38.

After IVF, people with extra embryos have four choices: thaw and discard them, donate them to science, donate them anonymously to others, or keep them frozen and pay a storage fee.

“They’re in their late 30s, they get pregnant with twins and they’re like, ‘Twins is good,’” Tyson said. “But they still have four embryos in storage and they have no plans to use them.”

Donor families “are looking for heterosexual couples” 

Snowflakes does not have a policy that prohibits single parents or gay couples from adopting embryos, but adoptions to those families are rare, Tyson said. 

“Anyone is eligible to apply to the Snowflakes program, including LGBT and single women,” she said. “But the matching process is driven by the desires of the donor. The people who are donating embryos to my program are looking for heterosexual couples.” 

Single women get picked before LGBTQ couples, she said, and for both, it can take years. When they apply, Tyson advises them of the long wait and suggests they try another agency. Nine times out of 10, she said, they do.

It’s the reason Snowflakes has been criticized by organizations that support LGBTQ rights, and was the subject of a “warning” put out by American Surrogacy, which matches people who want to have children with surrogates who will carry the pregnancy. 

“Organizations that have this view of life at conception often have specific ideas of who should be a parent — specifically, that only heterosexual couples should pursue embryo adoption,” American Surrogacy wrote. “If you’re a single or LGBT intended parent, embryo adoption could likely be much harder for you than it would be for a married, heterosexual couple.”

In years past, Snowflakes has received federal funding through a grant program from the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Embryo Adoption Awareness and Services Program. The agency was denied in the last go-around of grants two years ago, however. 

Snowflakes is a division of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency founded in the 1950s by a group of evangelical churches that wanted to “find Christian homes for babies abandoned due to unplanned pregnancy.” Formerly the Evangelical Welfare Agency, the organization changed its name to Nightlight to represent a “warm, safe place for children.” 

Its embryo adoption program boasts that it’s the only accredited embryo adoption program in the world, a status approved a couple of years ago by the Council on Accreditation, which also accredits traditional adoption agencies.

“Waiting for a friendly womb”

In 2022, Snowflakes made 150 family matches and counted 131 babies born. That was up from 101 babies the year before. The agency is expecting another baby boom this year. 

Out of several hundred fertility clinics in the country, Snowflakes works with about 40. The clinics are spread across the states in the hopes of giving families a close-to-home option. The other large embryo adoption agency in the United States, the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, performs the transfers at its headquarters. 

Out of the 40 fertility clinics that work with Snowflakes, only a handful will accept embryos that are decades old. 

Steven and Alana Lisano with their children, Jayden, far left, Tyler, and Hannah, far right, spend family time at their home. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Donor families pay nothing to work with Snowflakes. Families looking for embryos pay a $9,000 fee that includes the hands-on matching process, legal contracts, marketing costs to attract donor families and shipment of the embryos, which are sent in liquid nitrogen in tanks that look something like old-fashioned metal milk jugs. 

The family adopting the embryos also has to pay for a home study, which runs about $2,000, as well as the expense of the transfer itself, which is typically a few thousand dollars. 

The whole process is still usually cheaper than IVF. 

And the odds of success are similar. For every embryo transfer, whether that’s one, two or three embryos at a time, a baby is born about 50% of the time, Tyson said. 

Fertility clinics don’t routinely tell their clients about embryo adoption because their business model is based on IVF treatments, the costly retrieval and fertilization of eggs, Tyson said. People can also use donor eggs and buy donor sperm. “But why not use embryos that already exist and are just waiting for a friendly womb?” Tyson argues. 

Some clients are drawn to Snowflakes because of its open adoption policy. With anonymous embryo donations, families might never know whether their children have biological siblings living in the same town, Tyson said. “You don’t know anything about the family; they don’t know anything about you,” she said.

Also, families want to know their embryos are going to a family they get to select. “Part of the attraction for Snowflakes is that they get to have a say,” she said.

Tyson keeps permanent records on the embryo adoptions, including where the families live, and families can choose whether to meet each other, if they want to introduce siblings, and how involved they are in each other’s lives. The Lisano brothers have met their adult biological siblings and the three Lisano children were the ring bearers and flower girl in one of the 24-year-old twins’ weddings.  

Steven, who says the decision to adopt embryos felt like a calling, said they haven’t ruled out adding more children to their family. “I still feel like adoption of a child is not fully out of the question at this point,” he said, while tailing 1-year-old Jayden into the garage. The toddler recently learned how to unlatch doors and enjoys climbing precariously high on countertops.

Alana, especially when describing how her family of five came to be, still has trouble absorbing it all. The tight bond between her sons reminds her that they are biologically related, but most of the time, she forgets her children were adopted.

“My mind is still blown by the whole thing,” she said. “It’s truly a miracle.” 

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