The 27-year-old infant


Molly Gibson / National Embryo Donation Center

When Molly Gibson celebrates her first birthday on October 26 next year, she will be 28 years old. That’s nearly the age of her mother, Tina.

She was adopted as an embryo by her parents, Tina and Ben, through the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her genetic sibling Emma was born three years ago.

Molly now holds the record for the longest life as a frozen embryo, 27 years. Her sister was the previous record-holder, at 24 years.

According to the NEDC one million human embryos are in cold storage in the United States at the moment. Often after an IVF procedure, there are “surplus” embryos. They can be donated to research, destroyed, or “adopted out” to another couple. A final option, which many take, is to do nothing and leave them frozen.

There is a handful of embryo adoption agencies in the US. Founded in 2003, the NEDC has organised about 1,000 embryo adoptions and births. It conducts around 200 transfers each year. As in traditional adoption, couples can decide if they would like a "closed" or "open" adoption. The latter allows some form of contact with the donor family. This ranges from an occasional email to a cousin-like relationship, the NEDC told the BBC.

The NEDC has a strongly Christian ethos and “firmly believes in the sanctity of life beginning at conception and recognizes marriage as a sacred union between man and woman as defined by scriptures of the Holy Bible”. It has received more than US$3.9 million in federal funding.

The concept of embryo adoption poses thorny ethical problems, especially for Christians. The Vatican published a document which discussed the issue, Dignitatis Personae, in 2008. It took a dim view of initiatives like the NEDC. Embryo adoption, like surrogate motherhood, though “praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life” would lead to “other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature”.

But the Vatican recognised that the existence of millions of frozen embryos is also a perplexing challenge to human rights.

All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge




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