Schwager: Snowflake babies bring new angle to stem cell debate

Clare Schwager

With the recent scientific advancements in induced pluripotent stem cells and the more established progress in adult stem cell treatment, the ethical debate over human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research should be at an end.

Simply put, embryonic stem cell research is behind the times. But, as hESC advocates constantly tout, “There are excess embryos that are going to be destroyed anyway. Why waste them?” However, that can be countered in several different ways.

The most intriguing? Snowflake babies.

Snowflake babies is the term coined to describe children born via embryo donation and adoption. Embryo donation is a little-known option for the parents of excess fertilized eggs after an in vitro fertilization procedure.

The surplus embryos are frozen and donated to a fertility clinic; those looking to adopt can either deal with the donor and clinic directly, or through an adoption agency. As with traditional adoption, these can be open or anonymous procedures. The donor decides to what extent she wants to be involved in the process.

Opponents of embryo donation and implantation will argue against the effectiveness of the procedure, but this raises the question: Where does the success rate rank compared to the cost, availability and moral reasoning for the adoption?

Embryo donations have an average live birth rate of 35 percent, while the National Embryo Donation Center boasts 47 percent. These numbers might seem low, but infertile couples who have sought out IVF treatment or embryo adoption understand pregnancy can’t be guaranteed.

As for cost, embryo donation was found to have a cost-effective ratio of $13,505 compared to egg donation’s ratio of $31,349. Compared to international and domestic adoption costs, as well, embryo adoption is one of the most affordable options for couples unable to conceive or simply looking to adopt a child in need.

There are an estimated 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States waiting to be used, according to a 2003 study by RAND Corporation. Of these, only 2.8 percent — 11,000 embryos — are for research purposes, and RAND concluded only about 275 stem cell lines would be likely to result. Nearly all the existing embryos, 88.2 percent, are reserved to create families.

The claim that there are “innumerable embryos going to waste when they could be used for science” is misinformed and entirely untrue. The truth is most of the embryos apportioned for research purposes cannot be used efficiently. Scientists who conduct hESC research don’t want a few leftover embryos — they want to mass-produce the desirable ones. In other words, human cloning.

The moral reasoning behind embryo adoption is not difficult to understand. While the ethics involved with in vitro fertilization are certainly contentious, that’s another article. For now, there are couples with leftover embryos that need a family, and there are couples unable to conceive in need of embryos.

The solution to the problem is simple. And though it may not always result in life, that tiny human embryo is being given the best chance it has at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s certainly more than can be said for the embryos being killed for the purpose of uncertain research when adult stem cells — which do not involve the destruction of an embryo — have been used in successful treatments for years.

Snowflake babies are not currently well-known, probably due to being a fairly recent addition to IVF procedures. But as the stem cell debate continues, they are likely to gain recognition as a humane alternative to embryo destruction and as a sensible method of dealing with infertility. 

After all, there are plenty of excess embryos out there. Why waste them?