RIVA – The first picture of Timothy and Sarah Cochran’s adopted child resembled a blank television screen filled with indecipherable static.
“It’s that dark circle in the middle,” Timothy said from the living-room couch of the couple’s home in Riva, near Annapolis, as Sarah, smiling broadly, held up the picture, a sonogram taken earlier in the day.
Sure enough, there was a small, dark oval in the middle of the static.
After years of heart-breaking frustrations as they tried again and again to have a child, the sonogram confirmed that Sarah was pregnant. One of the three embryos doctors had transferred from frozen storage into her womb three weeks earlier had taken hold.
Fertility treatments – with a twist – had finally worked.
The Cochrans had gone through a lengthy and relatively new process called “embryo adoption” to take possession of the embryos which were the genetic offspring of another Maryland couple.
While the Cochrans are pleased with the outcome, not everybody is so pleased with the idea of embryo adoption. Its critics charge it is a political wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“The procedure has been done for many years and everybody called it ’embryo donation.’ Nobody called it ’embryo adoption’,” said Dr. Eugene Katz, the director of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Fertility Center. “It’s politically driven.”
And indeed over the past year embryo adoption has emerged at the front lines of the national debate over when human life begins and the ethics of using human embryos for medical research.
That debate arrived in Maryland in early March when embryo adoption surfaced during a filibuster battle in the General Assembly over legislation to provide state funding for embryonic stem cell research. The conflict produced a compromise version of the bill which the General Assembly passed Wednesday and which Governor Robert L. Ehrlich has indicated he will sign it into law.
In the middle of the debate are couples like the Cochrans, devout Christians, with a burning desire for children and deep-seated moral objections to the destruction of embryos for medical research.
The Cochrans first learned of embryo adoption while listening to Focus on the Family, the radio show of Dr. James Dobson, an evangelical Christian commentator and the author of several popular books on child rearing.
By the time they decided to give it a try they had already been through an epic struggle to have children.
In 1998, doctors diagnosed Sarah with endometriosis, a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found in other areas of the pelvic cavity. The excess tissue restricted blood flow to her ovaries, preventing her from producing healthy eggs.
She found herself among the roughly 6.1 million U.S. women who struggle with infertility, according to a 2003 report from the Centers for Disease Control.
Over the next several years, the Cochrans’ attempts to have children through in vitro fertilization (IVF) produced no results. They then decided to pursue traditional adoption, but before they finished the adoption process, Sarah became pregnant.
The surprise pregnancy also ended in heartbreak. Just before the due date, a kink in the umbilical cord cut off blood flow to the infant, who died during an emergency cesarean section.
Despite the ordeal, the couple still wanted to try having a child.
In 2004, after another unsuccessful round of IVF treatments, they paid a visit to the California headquarters of the Snowflake Embryo Adoption Program, the agency mentioned on Dobson’s radio show. After a 2 hour consultation they were convinced.
“We left knowing that was what God wanted us to do,” Sarah said.
Founded in 1997 by Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency that also arranges traditional adoptions, Snowflake was the first of three programs that currently arrange embryo adoptions in the United States.
Unlike traditional embryo donation, which is anonymous and only requires the couples to undergo medical screening and psychological counseling, Snowflake requires adoptive couples to submit to more extensive screening similar to that required for traditional adoptions. This includes fingerprinting, background checks, visits by social workers and infant CPR and parenting classes.
Both the donor and adoptive couples prepare in-depth profiles of themselves, including statements of religious beliefs and multiple photographs, which they use to choose each other.
The adoptive couples like the Cochrans must agree to forego selective reduction, a procedure where embryos are surgically removed from the uterine wall after tranfer to prevent the development of multiple children.
Doctors sometimes recommend the procedure to protect the health of the mother and the developing fetuses, but some religious conservatives consider it a form abortion and tantamount to murder.
Critics of Snowflake and the other agencies point out that there is nothing new about one couple donating embryos to another couple.
They worry embryo adoption agencies are a means for laying the political foundations for the argument that life begins at conception and that embryos deserve the same legal protections as children who have already been born.
The ultimate goal, they fear, is to prevent couples from donating their excess embryos for biomedical research.
“We think that the patient should be able to make that decision,” said Sean B. Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “They have gone through a lot to produce these embryos and would like to see them go to research. But the agencies who are touting embryo adoption are trying to take that decision away.”
Snowflake spokeswoman, Megan Corcoran, denies that Snowflake is a political Trojan horse. She said the program was intended to give couples struggling with infertility more choices.
“I think we are here for families that already in their minds or hearts would not give their embryos to research,” she said.
While Snowflake stops short of saying it is immoral to destroy embryos for research, it is upfront about its philosophy on when life begins. Snowflake’s Web site calls embryos “pre-born children” and states that “when embryos are created, life begins.”
Adding to the critic’s arguments that embryo adoption has political ramifications is its emergence on the political stage over the past year.
In the Maryland General Assembly it was used to criticize the measure to fund embryonic stem cell research, a field of scientific inquiry that many experts believe holds great promise for curing diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s.
The Democrat-sponsored bill, which sought to provide $25 million in funding for the research, listed embryo adoption as one of the options women would have under the law for dispensing with their excess embryos after IVF treatments.
The choice of embryo adoption was added to the bill’s language after a Snowflake couple testified at a legislative hearing on the measure, according to a legislative aide who helped craft the bill.
But the decision to allow the word “adoption” in the legislation came back to haunt the bill’s sponsors. During the Senate debate, Senator Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick, pointed out the irony that under the proposed law an embryo could be adopted or destroyed for research.
“Why would you put something up for adoption that isn’t a human life?” said Mooney, who later voted against the legislation.
To end the Republican-led filibuster, the bill’s sponsors had to bow to opponents’ demands to remove the priority the bill gave to research on embryos and to remove the $25 million in mandated research funding.
Embryo adoption also played a part in a showdown last May between President Bush and Congress over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Bush held a press conference to express his opposition to legislation to fund the research and invited the Cochrans and several other Snowflake couples to join him.
At the press conference, Bush argued that excess embryos should be adopted instead of being used for embryonic stem cell research. He threatened to veto the funding legislation, which essentially killed the bi-partisan proposal.
The Cochrans agree with Bush’s view that embryos are living beings and that using them for research is trading one life for another.
“Dead things don’t grow,” Sarah said. “I would never ask someone else to let their child be killed so that my child might have a cure. I can’t in good conscience respect someone who would.”
Critics like Katz and Tipton doubt, however, that embryo adoption will ever put more than the smallest dent in the more than 400,000 embryos estimated to be in frozen storage.
They said most couples choose to either dispose of the embryos or donate them to research when they are done with IVF treatments.
“It’s unrealistic to say that embryos should not be used for research because somebody might adopt them, because very few patients are interested in this,” said Katz of the patients who come to his clinic.
As of this January, Snowflake embryo adoptions had produced 99 children since the program began in 1997, according to Corcoran.
Embryo donors Robert and Angie Deacon of Virginia Beach were undeterred by the small numbers of births that result from the Snowflake program.
Like the Cochrans, the Deacons are devout Baptists and learned about Snowflake through Dobson’s radio show. They were also guests at Bush’s press conference last May.
Their 6-year-old twins Elijah and Hannah were the result of IVF treatments, as were 13 excess frozen embryos they decided to put up for adoption through Snowflake.
“The hardest part was deciding what to do and letting them go,” Angie Deacon said of the embryos. “We believe that it is a life. It’s not just eggs and sperm.”
Their choice to donate the embryos was largely motivated by their beliefs that life begins at conception and that destroying an embryo is immoral. But Angie Deacon said the choice was also motivated by her parental attachment to the embryos. “I think it goes beyond my religious convictions,” she said.
She said there were a lot of similarities between her husband and her and the couple that adopted their embryos.
“It was amazing the things that we had in common, including similar color hair, she said. “I don’t know if they pick based on that.”
For their part, Timothy and Sarah Cochran said physical characteristics played little role in their choice of a donor. “We weren’t out to pick and choose, so we will take what God gives us,” Timothy said.