Nearly one in six prospective parents in Canada struggles with infertility, and most of them aren't aware of a legal, if unusual, option available.

It involves the donation of surplus embryos — created by couples for in vitro fertilization.

Hordyk family

Miriam, left, and Mark Hordyk play Lego with their nearly three-year-old son, Landon, who the couple had through embryo donation.

“If you struggle with conceiving and there's other options out there and an open door, then go through it,” Miriam Hordyk says as she watches her nearly three-year-old son Landon play with Lego.

Miriam and her husband, Mark, couldn't have children of their own.             

After three years of waiting, they gave up on adoption. Then they heard about an agency in the United States running what it calls the Snowflakes Program.

Nightlight Christian Adoptions was connecting families who wanted to donate their unused embryos to potential parents.

“I think this is a wonderful option,” Miriam says.

“We’re Christian so we believe in life at conception,” Mark adds. “To us, it wasn’t hard to get past it. It’s a child that needs love and attention just like any other child and I saw the benefits of Miriam carrying the child, so her connection to the child is huge right off the bat. In my mind, it’s almost better than traditional adoption.”

The couple applied to Nightlight, went through all the home studies and background checks, and had a profile prepared.

Within a month, they were matched to an American couple with nine embryos to donate.

“We viewed it as a huge gift from them,” Mark says.

Legal but not common

In Canada, embryo donation is legal but it's not very common.

Beginnings Counselling & Adoption Services of Ontario Inc. is the national non-profit agency arranging these matches.

Although there are approximately 60,000 frozen embryos in storage in Canada, Beginnings has only made 17 matches resulting in successful pregnancies, in the last five years.

In contrast, nearly 400 babies have been born through Nightlight alone since it started doing what it calls embryo adoptions in 1997.

“The main difference between the clinic donation model and embryo adoption model is the family gets to choose who their embryos are placed with. In a clinic setting, it’s simply an anonymous donation and the clinic would assign embryos to whichever patient families they choose. In an adoption program, we keep a little tighter rein on the distribution of the genetics,” says Kimberly Tyson, marketing and program director at Nightlight’s head office in Colorado.

Francoise Baylis

Couples considering donating or receiving surplus embryos are often faced with tough ethical questions, says Francoise Baylis, Canada research chair in bioethics and philosophy at Dalhousie University.

“I think it's important because, let's say there's a family who donates 10 embryos to a clinic and the clinic divides those embryos amongst four to five families and perhaps three or four of those families might have children as a result of that donation. So now you have the donor family who has genetic siblings, you have the adopting potential four or five families that have genetic siblings. They're all using the same fertility clinic so the likelihood of them living in a geographic area of similar place is pretty high.

“Wouldn't you like to know if your daughter was dating their brother that was born in another family?”

Although Nightlight is a Christian agency, Tyson says it doesn’t discriminate against applicants from other religions, or same-sex couples.

Here and in the US, it's illegal to buy and sell embryos, but administrative, legal, storage and transfer costs can run as high as $10,000 Cdn.

Informed consent crucial

Everyone involved should do their research, says Francoise Baylis, the Canada research chair in bioethics and philosophy, at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“Even if you make a fully conscious choice, a choice you think is fully informed … things can and do fall apart,” she says.

Baylis has heard of one case where a wealthy couple donated embryos to one with fewer resources.

After the baby was born, the families kept in touch. Over the years, the donor couple saw the other child was getting fewer opportunities than the children they were raising themselves.

"Over time, this led to a fair bit of conflict between the two families because the one family simply didn't have the resources to bring the child up in the way that the other family was," she says.

“This is a legitimate option that's going to make sense for some people, but what's really important is that all parties have to have a full understanding of what they're participating in and that's going to be about the emotional impact, the psychology of it ... and how that might play out over a very long time.”

Baylis’ research shows in Canada, couples prefer to donate their embryos to their IFV clinics for research and teaching purposes.

Other options include storing them indefinitely or destroying them.

Difficult decisions

That wasn’t an option for Tom and Anabelle Peterson.          

“I was trying to determine what the right choice was and the idea of destroying the embryos, I was not comfortable with for many reasons,” Tom says.

“And I came to the conclusion that I was not wanting to give them up for adoption because I was selfish and I didn’t want to live with the reality that I gave those up and the child might come to me and say, 'Why did you give me up?'"

Anabelle, too, was torn.

“I remember one day I was in the shower and crying and struggling with the thought Tom described … but there was a voice in my mind which was really a moment with God … They’re not yours, Anabelle, and it gave me so much peace. And it was like, that’s it. They’re not mine. I don’t have any right over them.”

After doing some research, they also decided to go through Nightlight. They were matched with a couple in Ontario.

“When I read their profile on my email, I fell in love with them. I just remember, this is so perfect. They’re just beautiful people,” Anabelle recalls.

The donation resulted in the birth of a healthy baby boy and an emotional meeting.

“He was just a delight. It was an amazing, amazing feeling,” Anabelle says, adding the boy has her feet, smells like her babies did, and looks very much like one of their sons.

“The kids bonded. It’s just beautiful. We never expected to have that kind of joy.”

They haven't had any regrets.   

“Never, thank God. No,” says Anabelle.

“What there has been is moments of, which I anticipated, sadness. A good sad,” Tom adds.

“It’s like a child who is biologically yours, and we love, is not in our home and I don’t have a close relationship with him, you know? That is a reality I think every parent would face if they were taking this step so that has to be acknowledged.”

When and how to reveal?

For recipient parents, one of the hardest things will be telling their child where they come from.

Mark and Miriam Hordyk have also met their donor couple and feel like they’re part of an extended family.

But they’re not sure when they’ll give Landon all the details.

“We’re going to have to do some explaining and pray about that for the Lord to give us the words to do it,” Miriam says.

In the meantime, though, they're going through the process again —​ hoping to add to their family.