'I Adopted My Daughters As Embryos': 1 Mom's Story

embryo adoption

Jess Mulroney never set out to adopt an embryo. After marrying her husband Sean in 1998, she started trying to get pregnant immediately. But after a year with no luck, an infertility specialist informed the couple from St. Louis, Missouri, that their odds of conceiving were slim.

They weren't deterred. The Mulroneys decided to try adoption and nearly succeeded -- twice. But after two adoptions fell through, they found themselves turning to IVF to make a baby. Four attempts later with no success, they were ready to give up. That's when Jess learned through an online infertility forum about embryo adoption


Mulroney was intrigued -- and about to tap into a small but growing trend. Nationwide, approximately 600,000 frozen embryos are in storage. And while some will eventually be used by the parents who created them, many will not.

The biological parents of those unused embryos can choose to discard them, donate them to research, or donate them to potential adoptive moms, who then have the embryo implanted in their uterus. The latter option -- resulting in so-called "snowflake babies®" -- is relatively new, but growing in popularity. Between 2004 to 2011 (the most recent year statistics are available), the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) has tabulated that nationwide, 6,573 embryos have "transferred" (AKA been adopted out) to families like the Mulroneys.

To Jess, the idea of embryo adoption offered certain advantages over the "traditional" adoption they'd tried twice in the past -- namely that the birth mother couldn't change her mind and back out after delivery! And at $2,500 to $4,000 per transfer, embryo adoption was also cheaper than adopting an infant, which typically costs $10,000 to $25,000.

Not to mention, the adoptive mother gets to experience being pregnant.

"One huge plus is that moms get the experience of carrying the baby herself," says Stephanie Moyers at the NEDC. "Moms also can control the prenatal environment and know she's done everything she possibly can to give this baby the best possible start in life."

Still, embryo adoption does have its downsides.

mom adopted embryos"We learned that the average success rate was around 40 to 50 percent," says Jess. Much of that success rate depends on the quality of the embryos and age of the genetic mother. And while Jess was given some information about the embryo donors, it was not nearly as much as a prospective adopter might want or get with a traditional adoption.

"We knew the genetic parents were in good health, and not known to be carriers of genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington's," Jess says. "I would have loved more information, but more or less would not have changed our decision. It is not uncommon nowadays for children to be born and raised by single mothers, often not knowing the father's health history. We viewed this as something similar."

Still, Jess points out, "The biggest concern my husband and I had is that it wouldn't work, and we would be right were we started: childless."

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Nonetheless, they decided to transfer a donated embryo and hope for the best in 2009. Five days later, she took a pregnancy test, which turned out positive. "It was the most amazing feeling!" Jess recalls. "I still tear up remembering it."

At first, Jess admits, being pregnant with another parent's biological child felt a little weird. "I worried a bit that I wouldn't bond with a child not genetically mine," she admits. All that changed after the birth when she laid eyes on daughter Maddie. "The moment I saw that tiny little girl, I thought: she is mine!"

In January 2013, the Mulroneys transferred another adopted embryo. This time they weren't so lucky. The transfer didn't "take."

"I took a couple of months to deal with that disappointment and geared up for another transfer in May, only to have it canceled due to an ovarian cyst that required surgery and a few months to heal," Jess says. "At this time I was about ready to call it quits. The process can be expensive, time consuming, and exhausting. It was then that the coordinator at the adoption clinic told me that those that don't give up are the ones that have success and to not give up. We decided to give it one last try, and in August we had two embryos transferred. Five days later, we again saw two pink lines!"

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Today, Jess's youngest daughter Olivia is 6 months old, her oldest Maddie 4 years. While there is no genetic link between the two since their first clinic had donated the rest of that batch of embryos to other couples, the Mulroneys do have two remaining frozen embryos from Olivia's batch, so if a child is born from them in the future, two of the sisters will be genetically related. But most of the time, Jess doesn't think about genetics or the fact that the girls aren't "hers" in a biological sense.

She does, however, think of the biological "parents" of her girls and the gift they gave her by allowing their embryos to be adopted.

"I will see something that reminds me -- a look, my youngest daughter's blue eyes, my oldest daughter's love of horses -- and I smile," she says. "I genuinely love that they have characteristics that are clearly from their genetic parents. I do think of the genetic parents and it is always with fondness."

More from The Stir: Mom Gives Birth to Baby After Adopting Her (VIDEO)

Since embryo adoption is such a new frontier, it's not considered "adoption" in a legal sense. Rather, the paperwork the Mulroneys filled out was technically for transfer of ownership of the embryos, similar to what would happen for using donated sperm or eggs. On the birth certificate, Jess and Sean are listed as the parents. Kids do not have a right to know the identity of their parents or the existence of any siblings. But for Jess, the hardest part of embryo adoption was the lack of resources and unbiased information.

"There are tons of websites about embryo adoption, but all are hosted by an agency that has an embryo adoption program," she says. "There is no one place that outlines each option and location." In an effort to address this, Jess and a fellow embryo adoption mom have launched a blog called EDA Community offering guidance to prospective embryo adoption parents curious to learn more.

Jess also plans to be totally open with her kids about how they came into her family. "We have already begun telling our 4-year-old that mommy's tummy was broken and could not have a baby," she says. "Another family had extra baby 'seeds' and they shared with us, and a doctor put the seed in my tummy and it grew to be her. I made a book with a photo of her as an embryo and her early ultrasound photos and use that to help her learn her story. It is her favorite book." 

How do you feel about embryo adoption?


Photo caption: Olivia Mulroney, 6 months (top); Jess Mulroney (bottom). Images via Jess Mulroney.

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