EMBRYO ADOPTION: Birth of twins, formerly frozen embryos, gives young couple unique outlook on stem cell debate

by Michael Foust, posted Thursday, June 01, 2006 (8 years ago)

EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the second story in a three-part series on couples who have given birth through embryo adoption. To read the other stories in the series click here and here. An overview story about embryo adoption is available here.

GRAY, Tenn. (BP)--There was a time when Kim Lewis had a burning desire to have her own biological children. That time has passed.

Today Kim and her husband, Adam, are the proud parents of twins -- one a boy, one a girl -- born through a unique process known as embryo adoption. Sam and Katie Lewis were once frozen embryos -- destined no doubt for scientific research, at least in the minds of many. Now, they're healthy and energetic 14-month-old toddlers, enjoying all the perks that accompany that age -- eating, sleeping and playing. And, of course, bringing their parents plenty of joy.

"I'm so thankful now that we were not able to have children on our own -- that I was not able to get pregnant," said Kim, who along with her husband lives in Gray, Tenn. "Because if I was, we wouldn't have Katie and Sam, and I can't imagine having any other children but them."

As it turned out, Kim, now 26, was able to experience pregnancy, just not with her own biological children. After trying for two and a half years to conceive naturally, the Lewises turned to the National Embryo Donation Center (www.EmbryoDonation.org), a Tennessee-based service which allows couples to adopt extra frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.

It is estimated that roughly 400,000 frozen embryos are being stored in fertility clinics nationwide. NEDC is among a handful of embryo adoption services. Others include the Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program (www.Snowflakes.org) in California and Embryos Alive (www.EmbryosAlive.com) in Ohio. Embryo adoption typically is less expensive than traditional adoption.

"It was an answer to prayers and a chance for us to save at least two lives in the process," Kim said.

But the struggle with infertility seemed to last forever.

The Lewises, members of Binghamtown Baptist Church in Middlesboro, Ky., tried for several months to conceive naturally, but with no success. Finally, they visited a doctor, who diagnosed Kim as having premature ovarian failure. They were told they would be unable to conceive. The news was devastating.

"[But] we spent a couple years just researching and making sure [the doctor was right]," she said. "... We really wanted children, and I was grasping at every straw to find a way to get pregnant. Eventually it got to the point that it consumed all of my thoughts.... I guess I became obsessed with it -- it was all I thought about. I prayed about it all the time."

Eventually, about two and a half years after the Lewises began trying to conceive, Kim felt a sense of peace.

"I remember one specific afternoon when we were riding in the car. Adam was driving ... and I was thinking about [pregnancy] and praying about it, and all of a sudden I thought, 'OK, I quit.' I turned to Adam and said, 'I'm done. God has given me more than I could have ever asked for. We already have a happy family and this is more than I could have ever dreamed of. If we never have children, then I'm happy with what I have. If we adopt, then that's great. But regardless, I'm happy with us.'

"From that point, it just seemed like things started falling into place."

The Lewises once more visited their doctor, who mentioned the possibility of embryo donation -- a process similar to embryo adoption involving extra embryos that are anonymously donated to fertility clinics. Around the same time, Kim's sister-in-law heard a radio broadcast about embryo adoption. Up until that point, their doctor had said egg donation -- which involves using an egg from a third party -- was their only option. They rejected that idea. But now they had new hope.

"The main benefit is that I would be able to carry the child," Kim said. "That was just something that I greatly desired -- to be able to be pregnant and give birth to a baby."

Embryo adoption, Adam said, "was almost like science fiction at first -- the fact of giving birth to your adopted children. It was an entirely new concept."

The Lewises adopted seven embryos. Two were thawed and then transferred into the uterus, where both implanted. Statistically, that's rare. Generally, no more than two-thirds of embryos survive the thaw, and no more than one in three or one in four will implant.

The Lewises had twins, although they did not yet know it. All they knew is that after years of trying, they finally were pregnant.

"Adam convinced me not to take a test before I went back to the doctor and had the blood test," she said. "And when they called me with the results, I was just so excited. Adam was at work, and I couldn't wait for him to get home, so I drove to his office."

Once there, Kim gave her husband some baby bibs that read, "I love my daddy."

"With embryo adoption, you're saving a life by taking embryos that otherwise would be thrown away or used for research," Adam, 29, said. "You're giving them a chance at life. That was one of the main attractions to actually going through with embryo adoption -- that you're saving a life."

Throughout the whole process, the Lewises told those they knew that Kim was pregnant with adopted embryos. Some of their friends understood immediately, while others required more explanation. But everyone was supportive.

Sam and Katie were born on March 14, 2005.

"People who know us say, 'Oh, they look just like you," Adam said, laughing. "... This is something we've been open about the whole time, and we plan on being open about it with Katie and Sam -- the fact that they were adopted embryos."

Sam and Katie are too young to understand the current debate over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists believe can lead to cures for various diseases. Their parents, though, are passionately opposed to it. They do favor stem cell research that uses non-embryonic sources (such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -- a process known as adult stem cell research).

"[T]his whole process has just reinforced in my mind that these embryos are a person we're talking about," Kim said. "It's not a cell or a piece of tissue. It's a person. If those seven embryos had been destroyed or donated to research, then Katie and Sam would not be here. How can anyone look at our babies and say that they shouldn't exist?"

So far, there have been no cures derived from embryonic stem cells, although adult stem cell research -- which uses non-embryonic sources -- has produced treatments for at least 67 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting research ethics.

"Regardless of whether or not there can or cannot be success with embryonic stem cells -- that's not the issue. The issue is, are these embryos life?" Kim said. "If the answer is yes, then there's no debate. The destruction of life does not justify it -- whatever the result."

The Lewises have five frozen embryos left. If they choose not to use them, they want to donate them to another couple.

They don't know who donated their embryos -- it was a closed adoption -- but they do know that the family also had boy-girl twins with the same batch.

Embryo adoption, Adam said, was an answer to prayer.

"From the first time we heard about embryo adoption, we have felt like God has been in it and He's blessed us," he said. "... It's just been a blessing that I can't even really describe. We've gone from some of the most disheartening times in our lives to the happiest times in our lives through embryo adoption."

Said Kim, "I'm really thankful for the time that we waited, as hard as it was, because it gives me so much more of an appreciation. When they're up crying at night and when I'm worn out, I'm still thankful that I have them."


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