(Originally published in The Federalist)
Rachel and Philip Ridgeway sought to make the best of a situation formed through brokenness by adopting embryos who had been frozen for almost 30 years. Their love resulted in breaking a world record late last year when the formerly frozen twins were born on Oct. 31, 2022.
The twins, Lydia and Timothy, “set the new known record for the longest-frozen embryos to ever result in a successful live birth, according to research staff at the University of Tennessee Preston Medical Library,” commented the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) in a celebratory birth announcement.
Lydia and Timothy were stored in freezers for nearly 30 years — 29 years and 10 months, to be exact — before being implanted inside their adoptive mother, Rachel Ridgeway. The previous record of babies born alive after being stored in freezers was 27 years, according to NEDC.
The Ridgeways, who also have their own biological children, chose to adopt embryos because they felt burdened by the huge number of children abandoned in freezers. That number is more than 1 million in the United States alone.
They chose the NEDC because, as Rachel shared with me: “They see each embryo as a child and treat them as such. NEDC works with Southeastern Fertility Center, which is a non-discard facility. They don’t throw away any embryos. They have multiple options for infertility treatment and IVF options that don’t include freezing of embryos.”
The couple sought out the children who had been waiting the longest — the ones most likely to be forsaken and who had no chance of being raised by their biological parents. Rachel told me she looked on the NEDC website for children in categories that made them the least likely to be chosen: Among frozen children whose biological parents “have anything in the medical portion of their profile that the clinic needs to inform adoptive parents of. Examples include history of testing positive for an STD, history of genetic disorder, etc…”
“No one looks at these profiles because the embryos aren’t ‘perfect,’” Rachel told me. “After looking through the profiles and finding embryos under this category, we decided that the best way to choose was to look at who had been waiting the longest at NEDC and pick them. That’s what we did. We found the embryos that had waited the longest and picked that profile as our primary donor.”
The Ridgeways then insisted on implanting all three viable embryos despite their physician’s concerns. This resulted in two of the children surviving: Lydia and Timothy.
The Ridgeways knew these children were created through commodification, and that they had lost the two human beings necessary for their maximum developmental success and sense of identity — their mother and father. They went into the adoption determined to do everything they can to help mend the children’s wounds. Their choices embody what it means to do hard things on behalf of children, rather than insisting that children do hard things to fulfill the selfish desires of adults.
Created in Brokenness
Before their adoption, Lydia and Timothy were denied their right to life and treated as commodities, as the IVF process always entails the risk that one or all of the manufactured embryos won’t survive. Three of the five children the Ridgeways adopted perished: Two did not survive the thawing process, and one did not survive the transfer process. And this level of death in the IVF process occurred even in the best-case scenario, with loving parents seeking life and actively attempting to protect it.
These children, thankfully, did not undergo any preimplantation genetic screenings to vet and discard embryos showing chromosomal abnormalities. This screening process is unfortunately common practice in IVF, even though researchers have found that embryos with abnormal cells can self-correct by replacing those abnormal cells with normal cells.
As embryologist Dr. Craig Turczynski has said, “there are plenty … of cases that should have resulted in pregnancy and didn’t. … [T]here are … embryos that by all conventional measures should never have resulted in a baby, and yet they did. These types of embryos were the only ones available and if they had been subjected to selection by a trained eye, they would have been discarded.”
We simply don’t know when embryos will continue living. So they should not be treated as commodities to be experimented with in the pursuit of getting a surviving child.
The Ridgeways’ children may face identity struggles because of the denial of their right to their mother and father. They were created by a heterosexual couple using “donor” eggs and the husband’s sperm, a process that increases children’s risk for psychological wounds.
Their biological father, who was 50 at the time of their creation, is now deceased, leaving little room for reunification to heal any identity struggles. The possible psychological effects of needing to process the bizarre fact that they were born decades after their creation is cause for concern.
No Easy Solutions
There are no easy or truly satisfying solutions to the ethical maze presented by embryo adoption. While Southeastern Fertility Center is to be commended for refusing to create embryos in their facility using donor gametes, offer genetic testing, facilitate surrogacy, or freeze or discard any embryos, creating children in laboratories should be discouraged even if no children are thrown away. Manufacturing children in laboratories is an affront to human dignity.
Those of us who know life begins at fertilization want to give every forgotten and abandoned child a chance at life. At the same time, the IVF industry — an ever-expanding, multimillion-dollar business — reaps ever-larger profits from experimenting with, killing, and indefinitely freezing human beings.
Although some generous people are willing to sacrificially adopt frozen embryos, our society should not continue to meddle with and bypass natural procreation by creating parentless embryos in the first place. It’s arrogant and foolhardy to manipulate the natural order. While it is indeed a noble thing to give those stuck in frozen limbo a chance at life, embryo freezing promotes the creation of more embryos, most of which will be left to perish alone.
Adoption is a generous response to a broken process, but ultimately that broken process needs to end. Lydia and Timothy’s happy ending underscores that millions of also-frozen children will die alone and unloved, all because IVF is legal. We should always honor children’s right to life, to their mothers and fathers, and not to be manufactured and commodified.