The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is about to get into the embryo adoption business. In December, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) inserted some language into the department's appropriations bill authorizing $1 million "to launch a public awareness campaign to inform Americans about the existence of spare embryos and options for couples to adopt an embryo or embryos in order to bear children." HHS was supposed to submit a report to Congress by April 1 "outlining the Department's plans and timeline to launch this campaign," though HHS spokesperson William Pierce says his department will miss this deadline.
Why is the government getting involved in embryo adoption? There already is a thriving private embryo adoption system in place.
In assisted reproduction, more embryos are usually generated than can be implanted safely at one time, so that would-be parents will have some backup if their first attempt fails. Consequently, it is estimated that more than 100,000 two- and four-cell embryos are frozen and stored in fertility clinics in the United States.
As a result, many fertility clinics already offer embryo donation and adoption services. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued its comprehensive guidelines for donating embryos to other couples six years ago. For infertile couples, implanting donated embryos is often much less expensive than generating their own embryos, costing $3,000 to $4,000 where the latter procedure would run to $10,000 or more.
Besides the fertility clinics, religious organizations with pro-life concerns have gotten involved as well. One of the more prominent is the nonprofit Snowflakes program run by Nightlight Christian Adoption Services. This option is likely chosen by couples who want to know more about who their embryos are being transferred to before they agree to give them up. Unlike embryo donation, the Snowflakes program is run like an adoption agency, complete with background checks of prospective adoptive parents, counseling of both genetic and adoptive parents, and so forth. However, embryo adoption has no legal standing and is not recognized by courts of law. This matching service costs $4,500 on top of any medical fees involved with implanting the donated embryos.
Eleven babies have been born through the Snowflakes program so far, and nine more are on the way. Currently, the group has 322 embryos available for adoption.
Snowflakes spokesperson JoAnn Davidson is, not surprisingly, in favor of the HHS program. "It's a wonderful thing. People need to know about embryo adoption," she says. Davidson's reaction proves that few people can resist free money from the government when it's subsidizing their interests.
Yet federal money rarely comes without strings soon getting attached. In this case, pro-choice advocates might be concerned that treating embryos as entities that can be formally adopted could be used later as the basis of a legal challenge against a woman's right to choose.
Specter's effort to involve the feds in embryo adoption is a political maneuver to get him some cover on the embryonic stem cell issue. Specter has been one of the leading congressional proponents of using stem cells derived from embryos for medical research aimed at eventually curing heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and other ills by creating perfect transplants. Stem cell research is being vigorously opposed by pro-life activists who argue that embryos are the moral equivalent of children. By proposing a federal embryo adoption promotion program, Specter is trying the hoary political tactic of being on both sides of an issue at once.
Not that one can't honestly support both stem cell research and embryo adoption. But do we really need a new federal program to do that? After all, ethical procedures for embryo donation and embryo adoption have developed very well without federal intervention. HHS should take a look at how successfully embryo donations and adoptions are being handled by the private sector already, and send the $1 million back to Congress.