These kids are genetic siblings and each was born to a different mother
|Toronto Star 13 May 2017 at 08:22|
It’s Saturday afternoon and Emily and Lucy are gleefully bouncing on a bed, occasionally swooping down to kiss their baby brother’s cheek or pat his fuzzy little head.
The siblings — Emily is 3, Lucy is 20 months and Tomas is 5 months — are enjoying some rare play time because each lives with a different family, in a different home, in a different city. They are genetic siblings — conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF) with eggs and sperm from the same donors — but each born to a different mother.
As the toddlers giggle and Tomas coos on his back, their mothers look on and smile. The three women, who were strangers a few years ago, share a bond forged when Ana, Emily’s mother, donated embryos, left over after she had completed her own family, to the other women.
The three families — from Hamilton, Toronto and Kitchener — get together every few months so the children will grow up knowing each other as siblings.
The three moms, three dads and three children are forming a new family dynamic, entering into unknown territory as they develop bonds they hope will last a lifetime.
“I’m sure this is not going to be easy, but I just keep thinking of Emily,” says Ana, whose kitchen wall includes photos of Lucy and Tomas, whom Emily refers to as “my sister” and “my brother.” “I don’t want her to come to me at 18 and say, ‘Mom, I have this brother and sister, why didn’t you let me have a relationship with them?’”
Ana was fortunate to get pregnant right away, which meant there were 22 left over embryos. She didn’t plan to have more kids and decided to donate the extras to women struggling to become moms, which would give Emily siblings.
Embryo donation is “quite rare,” says Dr. Jeffrey Roberts, president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, a non-profit professional organization that represents those working in assisted reproduction. The reason for this isn’t demand — which is high — but a lack of available supply, he says. People are often reluctant to donate surplus embryos, particularly if they’ve used their own eggs and sperm. They can’t bear the thought of their genetic child being raised by someone else.
ANA, BOB AND EMILY
After trying to get pregnant naturally for two years, Ana’s family doctor broke the news: At the age of 32, Ana was in premature menopause. She and her partner Bob were devastated.
“I just always assumed I would be a mom, so when I couldn’t (conceive) and that was taken away from me, it was like my body failed,” says Ana. “(Bob) was amazing and supportive ... He said ‘Try not to stress about it, we will have a child.’”
When she was in her late 30s, she mustered up the courage to undergo IVF. The Hamilton couple opted for donor eggs and, because of Bob’s family history of cancer and multiple sclerosis, donor sperm. Canadian law prohibits the sale of sperm, eggs and embryos so they turned to U.S. companies. They chose donors with a clean bill health, of similar European descent to themselves and who were open to being contacted by any offspring after age 18. (Both donors relinquished all legal parenting rights.)
Initially, Ana wasn’t fazed by the large amount of embryos — if the initial transfer into her uterus didn’t result in a pregnancy she could keep trying. But she didn’t need to.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was over the moon,” she says.
By the time Emily was born in late 2013, Ana was 40. “I thought if I have one (child), I’m blessed.”
That left Ana and Bob with 22 embryos and the ethical dilemma of what to do with them: Freeze them, destroy them, give them to scientific research, or donate them.
“Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing but I see (embryos) as future children,” says Ana. Knowing how hard it was to become a mom, she felt donating made the most sense.
There aren’t many clinics in Canada that have embryo donation programs. Those that do are either open, meaning the donor selects or knows the recipient, or anonymous, which means the donor doesn’t know who gets the embryos.
Both options are potentially problematic, says Kerry Bowman, an assistant professor of bioethics at the University of Toronto. Allowing the donor to choose a recipient can raise human rights issues if someone is discriminated based on race, religion or sexuality. Some recipients are uncomfortable with an open process because it may involve another set of parents in the child’s upbringing. On the other hand, with an anonymous program donors can wind up with biological offspring they don’t know.
“People have to be really, really well informed as to how all of it can play out,” Bowman says. “We have to project ourselves 15, 20, 25 years forward. If in fact there is a child produced, what will that be like? What will that child want to know? What are the chances of a child meeting a biological sibling they didn’t know existed?”
Ana asked herself those questions and wanted to choose the recipient. Beginnings, the largest private adoption agency in Ontario, allowed her to do that.
A shortage of babies available for adoption spurred the non-profit agency to start its embryo donation program in 2010. To date, the agency has worked with 29 embryo donors, resulting in the birth of 10 babies, says Mary Howlett Nero, the embryo donation program co-ordinator.
The agency matches counsels and assesses donors and recipients and refers them to lawyers, who draw up the legal agreements. The recipient pays about $10,000 to cover the agency fees, legal work and fertility clinic fees. The donor doesn’t incur any costs.
Beginnings’ embryo donation program is modelled on the Snowflakes program, which was started in 1997 by Nightlight Christian Adoptions in the U.S. Nearly 1,200 families have donated unused embryos to that program, resulting in about 500 “Snowflake” babies, so-called because they were once frozen.
Beginnings’ open process allowed Ana to negotiate the terms of a future relationship with the recipient family. She wanted Emily to have siblings — and to know them.
LARA, DAVE AND LUCY
After about four frustrating years of trying to become parents, Lara and Dave considered embryo donation.
By then, the Toronto couple had undergone four rounds of IVF using their eggs and sperm, Lara had surgery to correct a uterine malformation, and the couple registered with nine adoption agencies, including Beginnings.
“There were times when my family and friends had said, ‘Maybe you should consider a life without children,’ ” says Lara. “That wasn’t an option for me ... My whole life that’s all I ever really wanted — to be a mom.”
“Thankfully, (Dave) was incredibly supportive and on the same page ... That’s why we were trying pretty much everything.”
As they waited to adopt a child, Beginnings suggested signing up for embryo donation. A few months later they were notified Ana had chosen them.
The first meeting was emotional. Lara was thankful for a shot at motherhood, and Ana was grateful her daughter would have a sibling. The initial contract was for four embryos, but if Lara and Dave were successful, wanted to try for siblings but had no embryos left, they could request another four. To date, the couple received eight embryos.
The first transfer involved two embryos and Lara became pregnant with one child.
“I couldn’t believe it was true,” says Lara, who had spent five years trying to conceive. “I was so convinced that there was no possible way that the universe was going to let this happen.”
Lara had an “amazing” pregnancy. She regularly sent Ana updates and ultrasound photos of Lucy, who was born in the summer of 2015. But the women were in contact for another reason: Ana still had surplus embryos and was looking for another recipient family. She wanted Lara’s input.
“I was so excited there would be another family,” says Lara. “I love the idea of this extended network of people who love your kids … The idea that our kids would have each other and shared experiences really appealed to us.”