On the receiving end of donated embryos

They tried IVF and IUI and donor sperm. They looked into adoption, fostering, and donor eggs. It was only after all this that they heard about embryo donation.

Sometimes when people create embryos, they create more than they need. After they complete their families, they are faced with the tough decision of what to do with the ones that are left. The choices, typically, are to continue to freeze-store them, to destroy them, to give them to science or to pass them on to other potential parents. Deciding is not as easy as it may sound.

Over the next year I hope to write more about all the complex issues raised by the existence of excess embryos. Today, I share a brief story about embryo donation.

*

Early in their relationship, the couple, who I will call "Elle" and "Ron", both age 38, learned they would need medical help to conceive. They tried IVF. [Eggs and sperm were removed from their bodies, the sperm were injected into the eggs, and embryos were developed in a dish, then put into Elle's uterus.] Luckily, they got provincial funding for their attempt. But unluckily, it did not work.

"It was really tough for me emotionally," says Ron. "For months and months and months, you're only thinking of this, and your life revolves around only this. You get so exhausted by it. Then it didn't work. I felt completely crushed." 

After pausing for a year, the couple changed clinics and moved on to IUI using donor sperm. [Sperm from another man was placed directly into Elle's uterus.] They tried three different sperm donors and made six IUI attempts. All failed.

"We had a meeting with our doctor," says Elle. "He didn't want to give us any false hope. He wanted us to know the reality." Now 41, with one IVF and six IUIs behind them, without so much as a positive pregnancy test, the odds were not good. 

They had already gone to a few meetings about adoption. They had discussed fostering. They had pondered egg donation.

But as the doctor was reviewing the various options with them, he stopped, and remembered out loud that he'd just attended a conference, and what he'd learned might be of interest to them. He rummaged around in his bag for a business card. "He couldn't find it, couldn't find it," recalls Elle. "We didn't know what he had to show us." 

The business card was for an agency called Beginnings Family Services, which, among other things, facilitates open-identity embryo donations. 

"We were three years into it and we had never heard of this program, had never heard of embryo donation," says Ron. They had attended all sorts of meetings with experts and no one had ever mentioned it. Even for their doctor it was new. "It's just hard to believe that there's so little information. There must be a lot of couples out there that would like to know about this."

They contacted the agency right away. Elle was immediately on board. Ron was more hesitant. He didn't want them to get hurt again.

They decided to give it a try. They had to answer questions about themselves and create a profile and a presentation. They wanted potential donors to know that they were family-oriented, outdoorsy, wholesome eaters, the kind of people who didn't even own a TV. 

"It's tricky," says Elle. "It's no use pretending we're anybody else." But they didn't know if they were providing the details that another couple would find compelling. "You're trying to sell yourself, to a certain extent," says Ron. 

Beginnings had a mutual matching system. Once their profile was complete, Elle and Ron got to hear about donors who had also submitted profiles. Beginnings discussed different criteria that Elle and Ron might want to specify for a match. At first they didn't think they had criteria, but soon they realized they did. For instance, they didn't want to match with someone who had only one embryo to share — what if it didn't take? Then they'd have to start over again, and they'd already had so much disappointment. They specified a minimum of three. 

They declined one match because they knew they weren't religious enough to meet the donating couple's wishes. "They wanted people who were Christian and went to church and really believed," says Ron. "And we're not that." They turned down another couple because of a difference in lifestyle. 

"That was tough," says Elle. Two months went by.

Then they got a new profile. "It's a two-pager, so we're going on very little," says Elle, "but we knew right away." It was something about their lifestyle, the things they liked doing, the tone of the writing. "We felt they were like us." 

The feeling was mutual. More information was released — like photos of the other couple's three-year-old and five-year-old. "It was just surreal. There was the sense that it was meant to be." After a Skype call, they were even more convinced. 

There were five embryos, and all were high quality. Lawyers worked out the agreement. One of the things they all agreed to was that if any embryos remained after Elle and Ron were done having children, the two couples would together decide who to donate to. 

The embryos were sent to Elle and Ron's clinic. A single embryo was transferred to Elle's uterus. She became pregnant. 

The two couples met in person for the first time when Elle was 33 weeks pregnant. They spent three days together in a Toronto AirBnB. "By this time, we had been in touch a lot," says Elle. "We were texting every day. We would call, we would Skype, we were already very close. But we had never met in person." 

Elle gave birth five weeks later. She Skyped the donating couple from the hospital. The other couple had two boys, and now Elle and Ron had a little girl. 

The donating couple met the little girl when she was not quite three months old. "Nobody knew what it would be like for us to see her in their arms and for them to hold her in their arms," says Elle. Family and friends were concerned. "But it wasn't uncomfortable in any way," says Elle. "It was perfect." 

*

Email me at alison.motluk@gmail.com. 

Follow @HeyReprotech and @AlisonMotluk on Twitter.

To read previous HeyReprotech stories, go to the archive.