Archive for July, 2011
Gamete donation of sperm, eggs or embryos has been occurring for quite some time. Sperm donation probably occurred as far back as 1884 in the US (Wikipedia, 2011). Embryo donation was first reported in Australia in 1983 using both fresh and frozen embryos. (Trounson A, Mohr L, 1983). Egg donation probably first took place in the U.S. in 1984 around the same time as the first embryo donation procedure (Blakeslee S, 1984).
Certainly in the early years of sperm/egg/embryo donation, the procedures were almost always done anonymously. Designated donations also took place using family and friends but they were the exception rather than the rule. Having donors and recipients meet was not really an option in the past.
Is non-anonymous sperm/egg/embryo donation becoming more common?
Over the years, there has been movement towards non-anonymous or known donations. Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Great Britain, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand only allow non-anonymous sperm donations. In a future blog, we will cover some of the consequences that occur when countries completely move from anonymous to non-anonymous donation procedures. At least in the U.S., there is a choice, though Washington State recently passed legislation that makes it more difficult for anonymous sperm and egg donation to take place. I will discuss this legislation and topic in a future blog since this is an important and concerning development. An increasing number of donor sperm and donor egg banks offer non-anonymous donation, although, with rare exceptions, this remains a minority of the procedures performed in the U.S. (personal communication).
Does EDI offer non-anonymous embryo donation?
At Embryo Donation International, we offer Open Embryo Donation where the donors and recipients have the ability to communicate, meet and establish a relationship. Other facilities tend to call it “embryo adoption”, a term we are at odds with (click here for more information), where there is an attempt to foster relationships. Interestingly, at EDI, this is rarely requested although we feel it appropriate to offer such an alternative.
If embryo donors & recipients meet, what is the outcome?
If families do connect, there are a number of relationships that need to be considered. The first involves the donor(s) and the recipient(s). No one knows if these relationships will last. Romanticizing the idea of everyone being one happy family may be misguided. There are certainly examples where friendships have developed, such as the families profiled this Good Housekeeping article, but the number of relationships that don’t flourish are simply unknown. We all have to go through so many acquaintances to eventually find our true friends, so it remains uncertain if these initially awkward relationships will last beyond the transfer process. Long-term studies are lacking.
The second relationship to be considered would be with the resulting donor offspring and the donor(s). In an Open Embryo Donation procedure, the child will not only know the genetic and family history in detail but they will most likely know the names of the donor(s). The likelihood of this child trying to eventually connect with the donors is great. While there is a genetic bond, it remains uncertain if the relationship will always be welcome or beneficial. Certainly in the adoption world, adoptees that eventually find their family are not always rewarded with utter acceptance and may experience rejection, as they see it, a second time. Once again, long-term studies are lacking about the effects of an open embryo donation process with regards to the potential relationships between the donors and the donor offspring.
Lastly, there are the potential relationships between the siblings created when the donor has children of their own or donates to other recipients with offspring created. These children share a solid genetic bond and may feel rewarded in forming a relationship with their genetic brothers and sisters. Only careful, long-term and unbiased research will be able to identify the outcomes of such relationships. My best estimate is that these relationships may be sustainable but what will happen if the donor offspring are not fully accepted by the donors or the donors and recipients are no longer close?
Will my doctor be able to help me with my decision to have an open embryo donation?
So, would you want to meet your donor? Would you want to meet your recipient? It would be ideal if your clinician could clearly guide you as to the expected outcome of an open process. In reality, we are also diving into the thorny question regarding disclosure of one’s origins to embryo donor offspring, something that I will be touching upon in the months to come. For now, however, I suggest a point of caution. The world of embryo donation is simply not the same as the world of adoption and extrapolating one to the other is not without risk.
The issues we are discussing involve currently unknown long-term consequences and we need to be careful, thoughtful and unbiased in recommending one embryo donation procedure over another. For now, I believe it is a very personal decision that only embryo donors and recipients can make based on how they currently feel and what they believe will happen in the future.
I hope that we physicians deeply involved in the world of embryo donation will better be able to discuss the long-term advantages and disadvantages of open vs. anonymous procedures, but for now, the patients will simply have to guide us.
“Sperm Donation.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 23 July 2011. Web. 24 July 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperm_donation.
Trounson A, Mohr L. Human pregnancy following cryopreservation, thawing and transfer of an eight-cell embryo. Nature 1983;305:707-9.
Blakeslee, Sandra (1984-02-04). “Infertile Woman Has Baby Through Embryo Transfer”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-05.
If the Embryos Were Created From Egg or Sperm Donors, is Consent Always Required Prior to Donating the Embryos to Others?
Frozen embryos created from the donation of either eggs, sperm or both hold great promise for the future of embryo donation. Over the past decade, the number of babies born through gamete donation, especially egg donation, has grown tremendously. Parents who already received the precious gift of donation from an egg or sperm donor may be more emotionally prepared to “pay it forward” with their remaining frozen embryos. These parents precisely understand how challenging third-party reproduction can be and realize their dreams of parenthood would not have been fulfilled if someone had not been generous enough to donate eggs or sperm. In fact, it would appear that embryos created from donor eggs and/or sperm are some of the most likely to be donated.
There are some, however, who feel there are lingering legal questions regarding consent if embryo donation was not specified in the donor’s original agreement. We obtained legal counsel, contemplated this issue from an ethical perspective and believe there are a few important points:
- The eggs/sperm are being donated to an individual or couple who have legal rights to them.
- The egg/sperm recipient has the option to use the donated material or discard it.
- Unless the egg/sperm donor contract has specific limits or stipulations, the decisions regarding disposition of resulting embryos should be up to the recipient.
Once a sperm/egg donor relinquishes his or her right to the genetic material, it is generally acknowledged that the recipient makes all the other decisions about the resulting embryos, including how many will be transferred during each cycle and what sort of prenatal care she will have. If fetal abnormalities are discovered during a subsequent ultrasound or amniocentesis, the recipient may make the extraordinarily difficult decision to end the pregnancy. Does she have to contact the original egg or sperm donor to be given permission to make this decision? If she is able to make this ultimate decision regarding her pregnancy, shouldn’t she be able to also make the decision to donate any of the remaining healthy embryos to a patient in need? If the ultimate decision is allowed, why not a lesser decision?
When we are asked to receive embryos created from donor material, we do our best (i.e., due diligence) to obtain a copy of the consent the egg or sperm donor signed. If there are any stipulations present, we feel we must completely honor them. Please keep in mind, however, that obtaining the original egg/sperm donor contract is very difficult. Practices that have this information infrequently provide it to us because of privacy concerns understanding that the donors themselves are not currently our patients. If, however, the contract fails to describe any stipulations or is ultimately unavailable, we feel the decision of what to do with the embryos should be made by those who have legal rights to them, the recipient. The greater good is seemingly served by donating these embryos rather than discarding or abandoning them.
Many of these issues could be circumvented if appropriate language were used in egg/sperm donor consents. We have done just that in my practice and our consents are available on-line for review. We let the donor know that the recipient may use the resulting embryos for personal use, donate to science, donate to single women, single men or lesbian/homosexual/heterosexual couples as decided by the recipient. We feel this covers all concerns and the sperm/egg donor is perfectly able to stipulate differently or discontinue the process with this information in mind.
The concern regarding the review of the egg or sperm donor’s consent is a guideline and not law. We accept embryos created from donated materials all the time with or without consents and always honor the stipulations of the donor when they can be found. Nearly just as important, we honor the stipulations of those that donate the embryos themselves.
There are many misconceptions about the embryo donation process. Our goal is to educate and stimulate discussion regarding the world of embryo donation. We welcome and encourage your comments.