WASHINGTON -- Pushed by Congress, the Bush administration is set to promote "embryo adoption," where one infertile couple donates leftover embryos to another. It's the latest move in the heated debate over the moral and legal status of an embryo.
The administration plans to distribute nearly $1 million for public awareness campaigns promoting donation of embryos, one of several options available to couples who create more than they need for invitro fertilization. Another option: donate them for stem-cell research that has generated enormous controversy because the embryo must be destroyed to get the stem cells.
Orders from Congress
The Department of Health and Human Services says it has no political agenda and is simply following orders from Congress. The grant program was inserted into an HHS spending bill by Sen. Arlen Specter, who supports both abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research.
Specter, R-Pa., said the embryos should be available for research, but only if they are going to be thrown away otherwise.
"If any of those embryos could produce life, I think they ought to produce life," he said in a statement.
The public awareness campaign, he said, is "sort of a test program" for embryo adoption. "Let us try to find people who will adopt embryos and take the necessary steps on implanting them in a women to produce life," he said.
Still, the program is making some people nervous. Officials at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine are considering applying for a grant, but fear it will suggest that donating embryos to another couple is preferable to donating them for research or discarding them altogether.
"Our biggest concern is to protect all of the options for the patients, not to make any one thing the designated best option," said Eleanor Nicoll, spokeswoman for the fertility clinic trade group. "Some patients are extremely uncomfortable about the idea of other people bearing and raising their genetic offspring."
Adoption over donation
Abortion rights advocates worry that the program lays the legal groundwork for considering embryos human beings with full legal rights. Using the term "adoption" rather than "donation" makes it appear that the program views embryos as children, said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
If an embryo were a person with equal rights, abortion could be more easily declared illegal, she said. "It can be used to support their effort to roll back Roe vs. Wade."
Fertility clinics that offer clients the option of giving embryos to other couples use the term "embryo donation." The phrase "embryo adoption" comes from a Christian adoption agency, which uses the same procedures to place embryos as it uses to place babies.
That agency, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, plans to apply for one of the grants. Its embryo program, called Snowflakes, has produced 18 babies, with five women pregnant now.
Officials there are thrilled by the opportunity to promote their philosophy with federal dollars.
"I believe every embryo is a child that deserves a chance to be born," said JoAnn Eiman, a spokeswoman for Snowflakes. "This is more than mere tissue. They need an option they haven't had in the past."
She added that it should be up to each family to decide what to do with its leftover embryos and hopes the education campaign will inform more people about the adoption option.
The embryos are a byproduct of invitro fertilization, where an egg is fertilized in the lab and then implanted into a woman's uterus a few days later. Typically, couples fertilize about a dozen eggs, in hopes that they will have enough healthy embryos to produce the children they want. Those that are not implanted are frozen for future use or discarded.
But after a couple has all the kids it wants, there are often embryos leftover. And tens of thousands of embryos are now frozen in fertility clinics often because couples don't know what to do with them.
Their options are limited. They can throw them away. They can leave them in the freezer. They can donate them for research -- though research using newly destroyed embryos is not eligible for federal funding under a decision made by President Bush last year. They can also give them to another woman hoping to get pregnant.
The grants being offered by HHS hope to boost interest in the latter. A total of about $900,000 will be distributed, and federal officials anticipate awarding three to four grants of $200,000 to $250,000 each.
HHS officials said they don't know what programs will be proposed. Snowflakes plans to suggest a video promoting adoption, particularly at IVF clinics that don't offer it already, a Web site, a public relations campaign and mailings to obstetricians. Applicants must have experience with embryo adoption and be prepared to evaluate their programs.
Applications are due next week.