'I Gave My Embryos Away So Someone Else Could Become a Mother'

Petersen family

When Anabelle Petersen couldn't get pregnant after five years of trying, she underwent fertility treatment. Seven embryos were successfully produced and thanks to those efforts, her eldest son was born in 2007. But soon after, Anabelle became pregnant without medical assistance -- not once, but twice. Three kids was plenty, she and her husband agreed. So what was to happen to the six embryos the couple still had frozen in storage?


In vitro fertilization is no longer a rare or unusual way to have a family. Last year, doctors at IVF clinics performed more than 165,000 treatments -- more than ever before.

But once genetic parents are content with the size of their family, they often have embryos leftover. According to the National Embryo Donation Center, an estimated 600,000 unused embryos are currently frozen in clinics throughout the country. And an increasing number of parents are making the same choice that Anabelle and Tom did: placing their embryos with another family for adoption.

Anabelle, 41, grew up in Brazil and met her husband, Tom, on a trip to the U.S. in 1999. At the time, she wasn't looking for a relationship. Her previous marriage of two years had ended and her brother had recently passed away. "I had no expectations," Anabelle tells The Stir. "I just wanted to relax."

But when friends introduced her to Tom, she couldn't help noticing how handsome he was -- and kept extending her vacation to spend more time with him. The attraction was mutual, and eight months later, Tom went down on one knee and proposed.

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"I immediately said yes," says Anabelle. "He was just a beautiful man and so sound and honest. It was the perfect start over for me. I had a lot of hope."

Anabelle left a lucrative marketing job, family, and friends behind in Brazil to move to San Diego. She and Tom began trying for a family immediately. Frustratingly, nothing happened -- for five years. As a "last resort," Anabelle turned to IVF. The treatments were a success, and in 2007, the Petersens became parents to a little boy.

Their son Andrew was only 14 months old when Anabelle was stunned to realize she was three months pregnant with a second child -- without fertility intervention. And by the time Lucas was 1 year old, Anabelle discovered a third child, Louisa, was on the way -- again, conceived the old-fashioned way.

"Three kids was plenty," says Anabelle. "Having a newborn, a child less than 2, and a 3-year-old -- it was a handful."

But still deep-frozen in liquid nitrogen and sitting in medical storage were six more genetic siblings.

When Tom first floated the idea that they donate the embryos to another couple, Anabelle was resistant. "I couldn't see them as 'eggs,'" she says. "They're my babies! How could I just let them go?"

But in the shower one day, Anabelle had an epiphany. "I realized they weren't mine to keep," she says. "I started crying, then felt a sense of peace in my heart. I realized I couldn't hold onto them."

By the time Louisa was 6 weeks old, Anabelle was filling out paperwork for Snowflakes Embryo Adoption, part of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a full-service child placement agency that assists families across the country. Since 1997, they've completed more than 500 embryo donations.

There's usually no charge to donate embryos; any fees (which may run as high as $16,000) are picked up by the adoptive family. Like traditional adoptions, some embryo donations are an anonymous transaction. But some agencies, like Nightlight, give families an option to have an open adoption. Because Anabelle felt strongly about approving and knowing the family who would inherit her embryos, that's what she chose.

Based on the personal info Anabelle included on her application, Snowflakes matched her to a Canadian couple who had struggled with similar fertility problems.

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"I fell in love with them instantly," says Anabelle. "They were the family I had been dreaming of. She's a stay-at-home mom, he's a pastor. They had moved to Canada from Australia so they knew, like I did, what it was like to grow up in a different country...We were on the same page about so many things."

adoptive family

Anabelle and Tom agreed to let them adopt three of their embryos. Although the first transfer didn't take, the second did. And eventually, the third. The couple now has two young sons.

She and Tom have become close with their adoptive family. They email  and send gifts to each other's children. They've met in person, too.

"It was beautiful to see the photos," says Anabelle. "I never had the sense, 'They should be mine.' I thought, 'Wow! They're alive!"

"It was an amazing experience," she continues.

Any pain or loss she feels, "is my own," Anabelle says. "But I embrace it and see the other side -- how much joy there is to help another family." 

Although the two boys are still too young to understand their origins, Anabelle's three kids know about their genetic siblings (including the three remaining embryos still available for adoption.)

"I want them to grow up knowing this [arrangement] is normal," Anabelle says. "This is our story and what we chose."

If you had embryos left in storage, what would you do with them?


Images courtesy of Anabelle Petersen


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