Flashback: In 1989, the Observer published a feature highlighting a burgeoning trend among Ann Arbor couples who wished to build a family and could not: international adoption. Thanks to readily available birth control, legalized abortion, and the reduced stigma of illegitimacy, domestic adoptions had fallen more than 40 percent since 1970. It was estimated that approximately one million American families wanted to adopt babies but could not. So, in 1988 alone, more than 9,000 “orphan immigrants” born in other countries were adopted by American families.
International adoption found fertile soil in Ann Arbor. By 1989, the sight of a Caucasian couple taking a Saturday stroll through the Farmers Market with an Asian or Hispanic infant in tow was already commonplace. The feature described two local families and their journeys to Korea and Guatemala to fulfill their dreams of raising a child. The perils were many: finding reputable orphanages and agencies to work with, maneuvering through a labyrinth of immigration policies both in the U.S. and abroad, and understanding the protocols and sensitivities of another culture.
Despite those barriers, orphan immigrants kept coming in increasing numbers through the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, American families adopted nearly 23,000 children from overseas.
But then the flow subsided to a trickle. In 2013, the most recent year for which the U.S. State Department has data, there were only about 7,100 international adoptions, the lowest level in three decades.
The reduction is due in part to the delayed effects of the 1993 Hague Adoption Convention, an international treaty designed to ensure the best interests of the child and prevent human trafficking. It took fifteen years for the U.S. and other signers to fully implement it, partly because participating countries had to create systems to track and verify that they were meeting the new standards for adoptions.
Some were not. A raid on a Guatemalan agency in 2007 revealed that birth certificates and even DNA samples were being falsified; the U.S. suspended all adoptions from that country, leaving thousands of prospective parents in limbo. Cambodia, another popular source, banned all international adoptions in 2011 amid charges of corruption and child trafficking. China has largely stopped sending healthy infants, while Russia closed down all U.S. adoptions after an American family “returned” an adopted child they labeled as unmanageable.
Today, adopting an infant from another country is no longer a realistic option for many couples struggling with infertility. Hands Across the Water, a local agency, arranged seventy-six international adoptions in 2005. In 2014, it did just eleven. “The number of orphans around the world has not been reduced, but it is more difficult to adopt,” says HATW international programs coordinator Julie Roesch. She notes that would-be parents might have to wait three years for a healthy young child from Ethiopia, or five years from China.
Some couples are now opting to adopt older children, locally as well as internationally. Last year, Hands Across the Water placed thirty former foster children with adoptive families. But for would-be parents who want a newborn, there is now another option.
Karen and Scott Shaper Sr. met their son Scott James Shaper Jr., in a U-M hospital delivery room on June 27, 2014. Scott Jr. is not their biological child, but he spent nine months gestating in Karen’s womb. He is a “snowflake baby,” the result of another couple’s decision to donate their frozen embryos.
“He’s my ten-year baby miracle,” says Karen, forty-eight, a clerical worker at the U-M Health System and a part-time instructor in communications at Washtenaw Community College.
The couple spent eight years undergoing conventional fertility treatments. Karen became pregnant twice but miscarried both times, and her doctors could not understand why. After all “the pills and injections, it was just too much,” Karen says. “I had used up all my medical benefits. We had to take a break for a while.”
Scott, a full-time instructor in Internet programming at WCC, was also balking. He acknowledges it was a hard time. “At the second miscarriage I saw the fetus in the delivery room, and I saw Karen in all this pain,” he says. “I did not want to experience ‘the bad’ again.”
Now fifty-one, he also began thinking that he was getting too old for parenthood. “But I realized that Karen had this hole in her heart,” he says.
After some soul-searching, the couple decided to soldier on. They looked for other doctors, tried a few other medical procedures, and were referred to Dr. L. April Gago. Board certified in both obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive endocrinology and infertility, she operates the Gago Center for Fertility in Ann Arbor, Brighton, and Lansing.
Gago laid out some options: testing Karen’s eggs for viability, a procedure that would cost about $10,000; egg donation; and embryo adoption.
The Shapers mulled it over and decided to forgo the testing. Scott was leaning toward embryo adoption, but Karen held back. “I felt that with egg donation we would have half of us, meaning our child would be half of Scott’s genetics.” Gago referred them to Alternative Reproductive Resources, a company headquartered in Chicago that recruits egg donors for infertile couples.
Debra Chaney heads the Michigan branch of ARR, in Bloomfield Hills. She’s been working in egg donation for more than thirty years, and is proud of her experience and track record of success–she says that about 75 percent of her recipients get pregnant.
Much of Chaney’s work is taken up with screening suitable donors for her referrals. At any given time she has six to ten donors available, all in their early twenties or thirties. When choosing a donor, clients can review her family tree going back as far as three generations, along with her personal health history, ethnicity, education, and photographs.
Current estimates put the cost of egg donation procedures at $24,000 to $30,000. Many couples tap into savings, credit cards, or relatives for the portion of costs not covered by health insurance. The Shapers paid $8,000 to the donor and $3,000-$4,000 for medications for the donor, including hormone shots to produce more eggs, follicle-stimulating hormones, antibiotics to reduce the chance of infection, and birth control pills to sync her menstrual cycle with Karen’s. In all, they estimate that they spent about $50,000 trying to become pregnant, the largest chunk on the egg donation procedure.
The couple selected a donor, and she and Karen were synced up. “It happened pretty fast,” Karen says. “The day of the transfer we had sixteen eggs harvested.” But within a couple of days it was clear there were problems with the eggs: “The donor was basically infertile,” Karen says.
Gago offered them time to think it over, but a week later the Shapers felt ready to go ahead. “Dr. Gago gave us names to contact for embryo donation,” Karen says, “and Snowflakes was one of them.”
Snowflakes Embryo Adoption and Donation is a program of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a California-based nonprofit founded by a group of evangelical churches. According to marketing and program director Kimberly Tyson, it pioneered embryo adoption in 1997, when Nightlife’s then-president, adoption attorney Ronald Stoddart, learned that couples who go through in vitro fertilization often ended up with more embryos than they needed. The extras were either piling up in cold storage or destroyed.
Feeling that “someone should do something,” Tyson says, Stoddart contacted a friend and client, Marlene Strege, who was dealing with infertility issues. She considered the possibility of using a donated embryo, but wanted to know something about the donor. She asked Stoddart if he could apply the best practices of adoptions to the donation process.
Tyson explains that the legal process is not exactly like adoption, because the states all consider embryos property. But the pro-life movement believes that every embryo is a living baby. And adoption gives the donors control.
Snowflake babies entered the political arena in 2005, when Congress passed legislation that would have permitted federal funding of stem cell research using embryos left over from fertility procedures. President Bush vetoed it and announced that his administration would promote embryo adoption instead. He announced the initiative in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden attended by twenty-one families with children born through embryo donation.
In mid-September, a tally on Nightlight’s website claimed “434 babies and counting.” The advantages of embryo donation are obvious. In addition to offering families an opportunity to experience pregnancy, it is more affordable than egg donation: the donors are unpaid, the in vitro fertilization has already been completed, and it is not necessary to sync two reproductive cycles with hormones and other medications. It also gives couples control over risks such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which is more common among adopted children and often includes mental retardation and other central nervous system damage.
Karen Shaper made contact with Snowflakes but felt its process was too impersonal and expensive. Through an Internet search the couple instead found Joseph Fuiten, a pastor in Issaquah, Washington, who works with a group called Embryo Adoption Services of Cedar Park.
“I made the call, but I was too scared to talk to him,” Karen says. “I hung up–but he called me back.”
The pastor put Karen and Scott in touch with Maria Lancaster, who heads the Cedar Park organization. Lancaster, through her book Souls On Ice and lectures, is a nationally recognized activist in promoting embryo adoptions. She and her “snowflake” daughter were at the Rose Garden ceremony. “I admire her character,” says Karen. “She knew immediately what I needed, and the personal attention we had was great.”
The couple went to work, filling out the necessary papers, collecting character references, and arranging for a social worker to fly to Michigan from Washington for a home study. Two months after they completed the paperwork, Lancaster notified the couple that she had a donor.
The Shapers’ donor signed off on all custodial rights, making it a closed adoption. That is not always the case. Recently, a family in Tennessee donated six embryos via Facebook with the stipulation that the adoptive family agree to use them all and to maintain contact with the donors.
Gago, who has been facilitating embryo donations in her practice for at least five years, is an upbeat advocate for the procedure. Like many reproductive endocrinologists, she prefers to use the term embryo donation rather than embryo adoption. “Donation contracts and donation language make it clear that once the contract is executed, the donation is complete. Adoption laws often give people some time to change their minds,” she says.
“The concept, to me, is really wonderful,” she continues. “Couples have embryos left over, and they are happy with the family they have. These remaining embryos are able to provide an opportunity for families to have a baby who otherwise couldn’t.”
Karen became pregnant in Dr. Gago’s office. When she went to the U-M Hospital to deliver, “no one asked and no one cared where my embryos came from,” she recalls. “I was just another pregnant patient.” And as far as the state is concerned, Scott Jr. is the couple’s child. Though they’re not biologically related, explains attorney and U-M medical professor Ed Goldman, “According to Michigan law, whoever gives birth to a child is the child’s lawful mother, and her husband is the father.”
For the Shapers, the technology, the expense, and the moments of disappointment and uncertainty have given a deeper meaning to the gift of Scott Jr. For Scott Sr., fatherhood has become an unfolding mystery. “I guess many men don’t understand it the way women do,” he says. “You just don’t ‘get it’ until you do it.” They celebrated Scott Jr.’s first birthday with a party attended by forty-five people.
When the time is right, the couple plan to explain the events leading to Scott Jr.’s birth to him. “We had a lot of letters that had to be written on our behalf for this. It took a lot of support,” says Karen. “He will know this story, and he will know how many people came together to bring him into the world.”