Embryo adoption

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Jaime Johnson and her husband Tom had been trying for five years to have a second child. They’d tried the old-fashioned way, of course. Then they pursued artificial insemination. The first attempt was unsuccessful, and the second resulted in an ectopic pregnancy. Through all this, Jaime’s job as a labor and delivery nurse could, at times, be like salt in an open wound as she saw so many women having the experience she longed to have.

Blood tests showed that at just 34, Jaime was pre-menopausal, dramatically reducing the chances of natural conception. The Johnsons discussed in vitro fertilization (IVF), but the costs were high and the odds were low, not to mention the worries regarding  genetic birth defects. Their son Fin, who was then 5, had a genetic heart condition, and any genetic siblings might go through the same struggles, the same series of surgeries. And while they were initially willing to take that risk with a second pregnancy, it became clear that they wanted to look into alternative options.  

Adoption was on the table, but it was really expensive. And, Jaime says, “I wasn’t quite ready to give up on my dream of carrying another child.”

And then the Johnsons discovered another option: adopting embryos.

“You get to a point where you just want to have children to love, and the ability to give birth to them yourself is amazing,” Jaime says. “And you can have—like in our situation—a closed adoption.”

When a couple undergoes IVF, they can get eight to 12, or even more, embryos from a single transfer. In many cases, they don’t need that many to complete their family. “Extra” embryos fall under property law—the owners can donate them to science, have them destroyed or donate them for embryo adoption and receive no financial compensation other than reimbursement for storage costs. Some clinics are Christian-based and favor embryo adoption over destruction for pro-life reasons  and are looking for traditional couples as adoptees. Other clinics are happy to help single women and same-sex couples.

The Johnsons, who now live in Turner but were living in Georgia at the time, researched clinics and choose one in South Carolina. They picked up paperwork regarding donors, took it with them to a Chipotle, looked over the profiles as they ate, made a decision and went back to sign the papers to adopt three embryos.

To prepare her body for the transfer, Jaime had to take estrogen pills and progesterone shots because, as she explains, “When you do the transfer, you’re considered to be two weeks pregnant.”

Fin had been a preemie, and Jaime didn’t know if she could carry twins to term. With that reasoning, the Johnsons chose to start with one embryo. Unfortunately, that transfer failed. The remaining two embryos had been frozen in the same straw (the storage unit used for embryo and sperm freezing, which looks much like a drinking straw) for three years and couldn’t be thawed separately,” Jaime says. “They were a package deal.”

And so they were thawed and transferred together. Then there was little to do but wait and hope, with Tom giving Jaime hormone injections every night to get her body to mimic what the placenta would normally do. And then, at the six-week ultrasound, Jaime said, “They were there—two sacs!”

By the end of the first trimester, the placenta had “taken over” and the embryonic adoption pregnancy was  “just like any other pregnancy,” Jaime said.

“Me and my pasty-white husband gave birth to children of Hispanic origins,” Jaime said, explaining that having kids who looked like them wasn’t important. The children’s biological background gets even more complicated, she said, “because the couple who did IVF to conceive these embryos used an egg donor, so there were three people involved.”

Jaime is now part of a Facebook group for moms of embryonic adopted children, and she reads about families who track down genetic siblings or half siblings. Doing that hasn’t been a priority for the Johnsons, who are running around after two toddlers, continuing to see Fin through heart surgeries, and settling into their second year of medical careers in Maine.

The twins, Wyatt and Winnie, are now 19 months old.

“I stare at them and can‘t believe how lucky I am!” Jaime said. “My husband and I have gone from the lowest point in our lives to the highest point in our lives. When I tell people our story, they’re amazed, and they think it’s the coolest thing.”

What about egg freezing?

Cryopreservation might sound like something out of science fiction. But the technology that allows women to choose to freeze eggs to put off childbirth is here.

“The concept of egg freezing has improved in the past 10 years and especially the past five years,” says Dr. Ben Lannon, a reproductive endocrinologist at Boston IVF’s Egg Freezing Center in South Portland. “It’s a relatively new thing that you can potentially act as your own egg donor in the future.”

While doctors perfected the art of using frozen sperm to create pregnancies several decades ago, it was only in 2012 that the American Society of Reproductive Medicine announced that egg freezing was no longer “experimental” and was a clinically acceptable option. The new technique, called “vitrification,” makes it possible for eggs— the female’s contribution to DNA—to be saved for future use.

“There is a powerful psychological component to this,” Dr. Lannon says. “If you are anxious about your biological clock, there is some peace of mind in knowing that you have your eggs in storage. But we want to avoid providing false security and to be realistic about what we’re expecting out of these eggs.”

One of the most common questions women have about egg freezing, or oocyte cryopreservation, is what age it’s recommended for, and the answer to that is complicated. From a purely biological standpoint, fertility is highest at about 21 years old. But who’s worried about their future fertility at that age? On the other end of the spectrum, thinking about egg freezing after age 40 isn’t ideal either.

“Usually that’s too late,” Dr. Lannon says. “There’s a decline in the egg number and egg quality as you get older.”

Weighing biological, social, financial and psychological concerns, Dr. Lannon thinks the best time to have eggs frozen, if at all, is in the mid-30s. Fertility begins to drop in the mid-30s and hits a steeper decline in the late 30s. For a woman who is willing to have a baby on her own—that is, using a sperm donor—37 is toward the upper range of the ideal age for egg freezing.

Another common question is about cost. A single cycle of egg retrieval averages 10 to 15 eggs at a cost of about $7,000 to $8,000. No, that’s typically not covered by insurance. And, yes, you might need to do more than one cycle.

“Depending on your age, you need about 20 to 30 eggs to maximize chances of having one live birth,” Dr. Lannon explained.

The patient goes on oral contraceptives for a few weeks, followed by hormone injections, and, finally an outpatient procedure to retrieve the eggs. The patient then has the option of later having the eggs thawed, fertilized and implanted.

The reasons for choosing to have eggs frozen can vary. A woman about to undergo chemotherapy, radiation or ovarian surgery might freeze eggs to protect her future fertility. A woman who wants to focus on career or hasn’t found the right partner yet might want to give herself another couple of years, perhaps having eggs frozen at age 35 that she might use at 39 or 44.

“This was a technology and an idea that was really pushed for by a previous generation of women who were in workplaces, giving up their reproductive years,” Dr. Lannon said. “For the current generation of late millennials and women who are in their late 20s and early 30s, it seems that society has changed enough that they’re having babies when they want to have babies.”

Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column css=”.vc_custom_1485444467383{background-color: #ededed !important;}”][vc_custom_heading text=”MORE IMAGES OF JAIME, TOM & FAMILY” font_container=”tag:h2|font_size:18|text_align:left|color:%23000000″ google_fonts=”font_family:Oswald%3A300%2Cregular%2C700|font_style:400%20regular%3A400%3Anormal” css=”.vc_custom_1485443857668{margin-bottom: -20px !important;margin-left: 20px !important;}”][vc_media_grid gap=”10″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1485443862606-73679f49-261e-3″ include=”6022,5243,5244,5245,5246,6023″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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