Embryo Adoption: An Interview with Philip & Kahlie

On Sanctity of Life Sundays, or near Sanctity of Life Sundays, our church occasionally interviews couples in our church family that have fought for life in various ways (foster care, foster to adopt, domestic adoption, etc.). And this year, our church interviewed Kahlie and me on the topic of embryo adoption, particularly our experience with embryo adoption. We initially planned to record and share the interview. A thunderstorm and power outage prevented this—it completely erased the entire audio and video recording! Shortly afterwards, Kahlie wanted me to turn the interview into a blog. I thought this was a good idea, and this is my attempt to bring a good idea to completion.

The written word is different than the spoken word, so this is not exactly what we told our church family during the interview. I have freely added Scripture references, article links, and footnotes that will serve certain people who desire to know more. With all that said, here’s our interview on the topic of embryo adoption.

When did you first start thinking about adoption?

The first time we talked about adoption with one another was while we were engaged to be married. Shortly after we were engaged in December 2012, we began to work through John Piper’s Questions to Ask When Preparing for Marriage. As we worked our way through Piper’s questions, we came to the one about adoption: “Would we consider adoption?” In response to this question, we both, at twenty-one years of age, expressed our desire to adopt. We knew that, through faith in Christ, God had adopted us into His family (Gal 4:4-6; Eph 1:5), and we were eager to imitate our heavenly Father by adopting children into our family.

What role did infertility play in y’all pursuing adoption a few years ago?

For some reason, we assumed we would adopt a child after we had some biological children of our own. Easy enough, right? Wrong! The Lord is the one who opens and closes the womb (Gen 30:2; 1 Sam 1:5). And throughout nine years of our marriage, the Lord has chosen to close Kahlie’s womb. We’re not sure why this is—the fertility doctors call it unexplained infertility. Anyhow, from 2017 to 2019, Kahlie went through some minor fertility treatments. We hoped and prayed the Lord would use these treatments to grant us a biological child. In His wisdom, though, He never did.

In the latter part of 2019, the fertility doctors began to recommend In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).[1] To them, if we wanted to grow our biological family, then this was the next step. We understood what they were saying, but we had no desire to do IVF. This led us to pursue adoption in the early part of 2020.

Why didn’t you go down the path of In vitro fertilization (IVF) to grow your family?

We are not medical professionals, and we do not know all the ins and outs of In Vitro Fertilization. But we refused to go through the IVF process because of certain moral and ethical reasons. Let me briefly give you the three thoughts that led us away from IVF.

First, as Christians, we believe human life begins at the moment of conception. Whenever a man’s seed fertilizes a woman’s egg, you have human life. In the natural, biological process, fertilization happens in the woman’s body. In the IVF process, fertilization happens outside the woman’s body. Either way, whenever and wherever fertilization has occurred, human life has begun. At this stage of human development, the precious baby is referred to as an embryo. But do not let the term embryo mislead you. Human embryos are human beings.

Second, in the IVF process, couples typically aim for the largest number of viable embryos. They want their doctors to attempt to fertilize as many eggs as possible so they can have a greater opportunity at growing their families. Sometimes couples going through IVF end up with five, ten, or twenty viable embryos. Every one of these viable embryos are precious human beings made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). And these human embryos deserve the same basic respect we accord to human beings at later developmental stages (newborn, infant, toddler, etc.).

Third, it is not abnormal for couples going through the IVF process to have extra embryos. This is one of the main moral and ethical dilemmas of IVF (read about other moral and ethical problems here). What do you do with extra human embryos, extra children? At this point, there are four choices a couple can make: (1) continue to pay storage fees on the frozen embryos (this does not solve the problem of extra embryos), (2) have the embryos thawed and destroyed (abortion), (3) donate the embryos to scientific research (abortion), or (4) place the extra embryos up for adoption. 

As we mentioned, the first option does not solve the problem of extra embryos. The second and third options are not even options for Bible-believing Christians. The last option—although admirable and praiseworthy at this point in the IVF process (we would not have Eliza Jane if were not for a couple admirably donating their extra embryos)—is still not God’s design. I think we can all agree that God does not intend for us to have extra biological children that we will willfully place up for adoption because we have already achieved the desired number of children in our family unit.

As we thought through this, we decided to avoid the moral and ethical dilemmas of IVF all together. This meant it was time for us to pursue adoption.

Of all forms of adoption, you guys did embryo adoption. Can you explain, in a little more detail, what embryo adoption is?

As we mentioned earlier, many couples that go through the IVF process end up with extra embryos. They can choose to donate these embryos to fertility clinics so that other couples may adopt them. This is why they call it embryo adoption, you adopt other people’s embryos. (They also call it snowflake adoption since you are adopting frozen embryos.) Then, and we think this is amazing, you give birth to your adopted child(ren).

And we will just add this, just like foster to adopt, domestic adoption, and international adoption are some of God’s ordained means to look after orphans, so embryo adoption is God’s ordained means to look after these precious orphans frozen in embryonic form.

Is this ACTUALLY considered adoption?

In the eyes of God, Christians, and The National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) this is certainly considered adoption. The only difference between embryo adoption and other forms of adoption is the fact that you are adopting a human being at an earlier developmental stage, an embryo as opposed to a newborn or infant.

Sadly, though, this is not considered adoption in the eyes of the world, especially governmental agencies. They view the human embryo as personal property. They basically see the whole process of embryo adoption as a transfer of personal property.[2]

Okay, that’s what embryo adoption is. Walk us through the process of how you adopted Eliza?

We went through an organization called the National Embryo Donation Center located in Knoxville, Tennessee. This is a Christian organization with a high view of Scripture and human life, especially human embryos. Because of this, they make the embryo adoption process like other adoption processes. Below is the process we went through when we adopted Eliza from NEDC.

First, we applied to adopt through NEDC. Then we had a licensed social worker conduct a home study. Once our social worker approved us, we had to travel to the NEDC in Knoxville, Tennessee, to get medically cleared—to make sure Kahlie’s body was suitable for pregnancy. After Kahlie was medically cleared, we looked at donor profiles and prayerfully selected the embryos we desired to have transferred. After we selected the embryos, we determined a transfer date, the date we would have the embryos transferred to Kahlie’s womb. When we were about a month out from our transfer date, Kahlie began her medication (lots and lots of shots in the buttocks)! Then we traveled all the way back to Knoxville, Tennessee, for our transfer day. This is when sweet Eliza Jane McDuffie was thawed out and transferred.

What’s some of the information that’s given on the donor profiles?

The amount of information on the donor profiles varies, especially when it comes to open or closed (anonymous) adoption. Because we chose anonymous adoption, we had the basic characteristics of the donor couples: ethnicity, eye and hair color, height, education, favorite band, favorite movie, etc. And we had the basic medical history of the donor couples: family history of cancer, heart attacks, strokes, etc.

When you select embryos, are you able to select embryos based on their gender?

For those of you who are unaware, in the IVF process a couple may pay a hefty price for preimplantation genetic testing (like PGT or PGD testing). “PGD tests for chromosomal disorders, like Down Syndrome, and single-gene disorders like sickle cell disorder, Tay-Sachs, and cystic fibrosis. It is also used to test for nonmedical traits like the sex of the embryo, skin color, or eye color. 92% of ART clinics offer PGT; 73% of them offer it explicitly for sex-selection.”[3] So yes, couples in the IVF process can pay lots of money to have their embryos tested to see the sex of each embryo. Then couples can choose to transfer the specific sex they prefer.

At the NEDC, however, they will not do preimplantation genetic testing on an embryo. Further, even if this testing has been done beforehand—on embryos that were donated to their clinic—they will not disclose the gender of the human embryos to couples pursuing embryo adoption. This means we did not select embryos based on their gender. We did not desire to, and NEDC would not have permitted us to even if we did desire to.[4] For NEDC, and we agree with them, it is unethical to pick and choose whether our family will consist of a certain number of girls and/or boys. We will leave this to the sovereign Lord.

Sometimes, in other forms of adoption, things go wrong and heartbreak follows. Was there any heartbreak with embryo adoption?

Yes. Here’s an eye opening and shocking statistic: only 53% of defrosted embryos result in a live birth.[5] About half the viable embryos frozen will not result in a live birth. As you can see, the whole process of IVF or embryo adoption is pretty hostile to the human embryos.

The embryo must survive the thaw, transfer, and implantation. After implantation, the embryo must develop in the womb just like a naturally conceived baby. And sadly, about half these precious embryos will not make it. (For some Christian ethicists, this statistical fact leads them to conclude that IVF is morally wrong and is to be rejected in toto.)[6]

To give you a personal account, we have attempted to transfer multiple embryos two separate times. On our first attempt, in December 2020, we adopted and transferred two embryos. Neither one of these embryos survived implantation. On our second attempt, in February 2021, our first two embryos did not survive the thaw. They thawed out three more embryos and then transferred all three into Kahlie’s womb. Only two of these survived the transfer. One of these embryos miscarried a couple weeks later. The other embryo, our Eliza Jane, survived the whole process. 

Kahlie eventually gave birth to Eliza in November 2021. All in all, we adopted seven human embryos and only one of them resulted in a live birth. If embryos are personal property, this is not heartbreaking at all. But if embryos are precious babies at an earlier developmental stage, this is certainly heartbreaking. It was for us.

But even with the heartbreak, you have a beautiful baby girl now, Eliza Jane! Just out of curiosity, how will you guys handle some of her questions when she grows up?

Just like we are aware of how God gloriously adopted us into His royal family, we want Eliza to be aware of how we lovingly adopted her into our family. “Adoption,” J.I. Packer argues, “is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification. . . To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater.” So, we do not want there to be a time in Eliza’s life where she is unaware of the fact that she is adopted. We plan, however, to explain this to her in a manner that is suitable to her maturity (embryo adoption is pretty hard to explain to a fifteen-month-old).

And we know this type of openness will lead to other questions. She will probably want to know more about biological siblings and parents. We plan on telling her what we know, the basic details in the donor profiles. But since her biological parents chose to remain anonymous, there are some things she will not be able to know until she is old enough to search these things out for herself, if she chooses to do so. And if she wants the information badly enough, she will likely be able to get it. It is difficult for closed adoptions to remain closed when you can purchase a DNA test on the internet.

And what are people’s responses when you talk about embryo adoption?

People respond in various ways. Some people are shocked because they have never heard of embryo adoption. To put this in perspective, our social worker, Kahlie’s OBGYN, and many people in our church family had never heard about embryo adoption. To be honest, we did not know about embryo adoption until a couple we knew pursued it back in 2020.

Other people are confused. They do not understand this truth: Kahlie gave birth to our adopted daughter. For some reason, people think Eliza has some of our genetics. They think we used my seed or Kahlie’s egg. They simply do not understand that Eliza is someone else’s biological child—the result of another man’s seed fertilizing another woman’s egg. We just adopted her when she was an embryo.

Some people are hesitant. They think embryo adoption is unethical, so they think we have crossed ethical and moral boundaries. These people do not understand that embryo adoption is the only God honoring solution to the hundreds of thousands of frozen human embryos that have no prospect at being born. If embryo adoption is unethical, what is the ethical means of giving these embryos an opportunity at life?

And other people are amazed. Like us, they think it is amazing that Kahlie gave birth to our adopted daughter. And in their amazement, they begin to tell others about embryo adoption.

The Bible states clearly that we are to care for widows AND orphans. How do you connect embryo adoption with a way to bring glory to God?

A major theme in the book of James is the theme of consistency—our Christian lives should be consistent with our Christian beliefs. For example, since God looks after and cares for the widows and orphans, those who believe in God should look after and care for widows and orphans. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). And when our lives are consistent with our beliefs, when we faithfully look after and care for the vulnerable, it glorifies the Lord. No duh, right! But just think about how this pertains to human embryos.

Human embryos are human beings at an earlier stage of development than other human beings. If we are consistent, this means we, as Christians, should care about these frozen human embryos just like we care about other vulnerable people. Or let me put it another way. These precious human embryos are frozen. If people do not adopt them, they will remain frozen. And I think one could argue that a frozen human embryo is one of the most defenseless and vulnerable human beings on the planet. 

Therefore, when couples pursue embryo adoption in hopes to give these precious human embryos the opportunity to exit the freezer and to enter into their adopted mother’s womb, it brings glory to God. It shows that we, as Christians, are consistent. It shows that we care about human life, even human life at the earliest stage of human development.

What would you say to couples that are considering In vitro fertilization (IVF)?

We genuinely understand why so many couples consider IVF. People want to have children. This is a good desire. And if they cannot have children because of infertility, then they look for other avenues that will allow them to have children. Here is what I want to press home to couples considering IVF, though.

We must not limit the Lordship of Christ to Sunday mornings. No! Christ is Lord over the whole of our lives. Because of this, our Christian faith has something to say about every realm and department of our lives, even our attempts to grow our families. In other words, our Christian convictions must have a say in how we attempt to grow our families. And because Christ is Lord over our attempts to grow our families, we must be careful to honor the Lord Jesus Christ in our attempts to grow our families.

With all that said, you need to really think about the moral and ethical problems of IVF. If/when you do IVF, you must not aim for as many viable embryos as possible. Instead, fertilize one egg and implant it, regardless of the quality of the embryo.[7] Or fertilize several eggs and implant them all, regardless of the quality of each embryo. (John Frame[8]and Wayne Grudem[9] both argue that this is the only moral and ethical way to do IVF.)

What would you say to couples that have already gone through In vitro fertilization (IVF) and have leftover embryos?

Since Christ is Lord over the whole of life, those who have already gone through IVF and have leftover embryos need to treat their remaining embryos in a manner that honors the Lord Jesus Christ—in a manner that clearly displays the preciousness and value of the human embryos. This may look a couple different ways.

If you are healthy and able, strive to transfer as many of your remaining embryos as you are medically able. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying you should transfer five to six embryos at a time. I am simply arguing that you should strive to give your embryos, your biological children, an opportunity at life in, and eventually outside, their biological mother’s womb. This may take a period of years, but it still seems like the ethical thing to do.

If your health and age does not permit this, then you should donate your human embryos to a fertility clinic that will treat them with the utmost dignity and respect, like the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC).[10] Fertility clinics like NEDC will treat your donated embryos in a manner that honors the Lord. And one day, Lord willing, your extra embryos will be adopted and born into a family that raises them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

What would you say to our brothers and sisters here who care about protecting the unborn and those that ARE born, but don’t necessarily feel called to adopt or foster?

If it were not for brothers and sisters like you, then we would have had a hard time adopting. There were countless Christians that prayed for us and the precious embryos we were adopting. A multitude of Christians generously gave us money to alleviate the financial burden of embryo adoption.[11] And once Kahlie was pregnant, fellow Christians continued to kindly give us diapers, clothes, and other products that prepared us for Eliza’s entrance into the world.

And for those of you who may not know, we are in the process of adopting embryos once again. And many couples who do not necessarily feel called to adopt or foster are graciously helping us in our pursuit to adopt again. So, here is what I would say to my brothers and sisters here who care about protecting the unborn and those that are born, but don’t necessarily feel called to adopt or foster: pray for, give to, and actively serve others who are adopting or fostering.

[1] In vitro fertilization is the process of joining a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm in a lab rather than inside a woman’s body. (The Latin phrase in vitro means “in glass.”) This is why babies born through IVF are periodically called test tube babies.

[2] On their website, NEDC says, “Embryo adoption is neither legally nor technically an adoption. It is governed by contract (ownership) law and not adoption law. Adoption is defined as the placement of a live child after birth, but it is a term that most people can relate to when discussing receiving donated embryos for reproduction. When you give birth to your donor embryo-conceived child, your names will be on the birth certificate as the parents of this child. Many parents describe it as “giving birth to your adopted child.”

[3] Emma Waters, Babies aren’t disposable, at any stage, WORLD Opinions, February 15, 2023, accessed February 15, 2023, https://wng.org/opinions/babies-arent-disposable-at-any-stage-1676463383.

[4] On their website, NEDC says, “At the current time, only a small percentage of available NEDC embryos have undergone preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), which can reveal the sex of a particular embryo. But even in those cases the NEDC has chosen, for practical as well as ethical reasons, not to share this information with recipients.”

[5] Pan, Y., Hao, G., Wang, Q., Liu, H., Wang, Z., Jiang, Q., Shi, Y., & Chen, Z. J. (2020). Major Factors Affecting the Live Birth Rate After Frozen Embryo Transfer Among Young Women. Frontiers in medicine7, 94. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2020.00094

[6] John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 424-425. John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg say, “We believe the embryo is human and a person from conception onward. . . . Our views on the embryo’s status lead to our greatest moral objection to IVF, namely, its waste and loss of embryonic life. . . . If the success rate of IVF had risen to 95 percent or even 80 to 85 percent, we would be more sympathetic to it, but . . . IVF technology is currently nowhere near such success rates. We find the loss of so much human life morally unacceptable. . . .Too many human lives are lost to think this is morally acceptable.”

[7] Poor quality embryos are embryos that have a low potential for implantation. Good quality embryos are embryos that have a high potential for implantation. Sadly, poor quality embryos are typically considered “unfit” and destroyed. Christians must regard this as unethical. If they do IVF, they must implant poor quality embryos.

[8] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship: A Series by John Frame (Phillipsburg, P&R Publishing, 2008), 788. John Frame says, “IVF is good in itself, as a method of conception when others will not work. There is no scriptural reason why a human egg should not be fertilized outside the mother’s body and later implanted in her womb . . . However, in the usual practice, several eggs are fertilized, and after some observation one is chosen for implantation. The others are destroyed. On a biblical view of the personhood of the unborn child from conception, this procedure is the destruction of human life. Christian women should tell their physicians either to fertilize only one egg and implant, or to fertilize several and implant them all.”

[9] Wayne Grudem, “How IVF Can Be Morally Right,” The Gospel Coalition, April 25, 2019, accessed February, 18, 2023, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/ivf-morally-right/. Wayne Grudem says, “My response is that fertilizing only one egg or two at a time, and implanting these with the hope that they will survive, is far different from the common practice of IVF, where several eggs are fertilized and then most are intentionally destroyed. In that case, there is a willful, intentional destruction of human lives. But with the fertilization of only one or two eggs at a time, the intent of the doctor and the husband and wife is that all the fertilized eggs will live and come to normal birth. Therefore, I still think IVF without the destruction of embryos is morally acceptable.”

[10] A good quality embryo that is frozen may very well end up being a poor quality embryo after it is thawed. As I mentioned earlier, some fertility clinics will deem these embryos “unfit” and destroy them. So, you do not want to donate your embryos to a fertility clinic that evidences its low regard for human life by destroying poor quality embryos. This is why you should donate your extra embryos to a place like NEDC. They will not destroy poor quality embryos. If the embryo is viable, the embryo will be transferred and given the opportunity to implant in the uterus.

[11] In most cases, the total expenses for a frozen embryo transfer (FET) should come to roughly $10,500 to $12,000. This is very affordable in comparison to domestic and international adoption.