Couple Creates Family From Frozen Embryo Donations

By Grace Wong
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) New and innovative fertility treatments are empowering women around the globe to have children in so many different ways it is mind-blowing. That is certainly the case with the Felice family. After 10 attempts at artifical insemination, Jamie and Dan Felice used frozen embryos to have three babies. So while the children are not biologically related, Jamie carried the babies in her belly. AMAZING!


The Felices’ three children were conceived at the same time, but they’re not triplets.

Faith, 6, and Matthew and Michael, both 4, belong to Jamie and Dan Felice, a couple who struggled to have children before being matched with a donor through a group that collects unused frozen embryos. They received six embryos. Two pregnancies later, their family is complete.

“I was terrified at 20 to birth a child, but once I found the man of my dreams and wanted to have kids and wanted to create a child together like most couples, I wasn’t afraid anymore,” said Jamie Felice, 47.

But after 10 attempts at artificial insemination and four unsuccessful rounds of in vitro fertilization, Jamie Felice was nearly 40, pumped full of hormones and ready to give up. Then she stumbled across an embryo donation organization.

“We thought, how cool is this?” she said. “I still get to carry the baby and experience pregnancy and how cool is it to connect on that?”

More than 600,000 frozen embryos are in storage in the United States, and embryo donation is a growing industry, with nearly 2,000 frozen embryos used in conception attempts in 2014, according to experts.

While many people are hesitant to get pregnant using donated embryos, the Felices are thrilled with their family.

Their home is filled with the thumping of little feet racing across the hardwood floors. On a recent weeknight, Matthew squealed as he caught the family cat, who defeatedly hung from his arms like a white, fluffy rag doll. In his haste, Matthew crashed into Faith, who ran to her mother with tears streaking down her pink cheeks and crawled into her lap for comfort.

“It obviously has its tough times, like when they’re running around and chasing the cat, but it’s amazing, you love them so much,” Jamie Felice said as she smiled at the little girl in her arms.

Her husband agreed, saying that this experience is the closest thing to having biological children and that he often forgets they’re not his own.

“You’re not missing out on any part, except in your head you know they’re not biologically yours and you just move on,” said Dan Felice, 51. “To me it is the closest thing to the real thing. You have them and they’re yours. You don’t even think twice. You would instantly die for them.”

Embryo donation is possible because of IVF, which began in 1978 and costs about $10,000 to $15,000 for a single IVF cycle in the U.S., depending on insurance coverage, patient characteristics and treatment centers, according to the website for the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which represents the majority of IVF clinics in the U.S.

When a client undergoes IVF, clinics create dozens of embryos and pick the best ones to use. The leftover embryos are typically kept in frozen storage, donated to medical research or discarded, experts said. Nonprofit organizations like Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the one used by the Felices, and the National Embryo Donation Center help match donors to recipients around the nation. Some hospitals and fertility centers also have programs that match their patients with the donated embryos from people who have used their services for IVF.

Participating in an embryo donation program is less expensive than undergoing an IVF cycle and also less expensive than using a donor egg. The Felices paid about $2,000 for their four IVF cycles because their insurance covered the majority of the costs. This total does not include the copays for fertility drugs, blood draws, ultrasounds and other expenses. They paid $8,000, plus an additional $2,000 for a home study, to Snowflakes Embryo Adoption and Donation, a program through Nightlight.

However, many couples balk at the idea of having a child who is not biologically related to them, and even more people change their mind when it comes to donating embryos, said Dr. Brad Van Voorhis, president of the reproductive technology society.

“If you look at the literature on this, a lot of couples say at the outset that they’re interested (in donating), but when push comes to shove, it’s a much less frequent occurrence,” Van Voorhis said.

Nidhi Desai, partner at Ballard, Desai & Miller in Chicago, which specializes in adoption and reproductive technology law, agreed, saying that while the number of embryo donors is on the rise, it’s still a small number.

“The national landscape is there are more organizations that are beginning to look at this as a viable means of building a family,” Desai said. “Depends on the angle from which you approach it. It is becoming more and more common, but there’s a very small minority of people who want to donate their embryos.”

About 65,175 babies were born via IVF from clinics associated with the reproductive technology society in 2014, an increase from the 63,286 babies born via IVF from its clinics in 2013, according to a national report by the society. IVF accounts for less than 5 percent of all infertility treatment in the United States.

Embryo donation is also getting a boost from religiously affiliated organizations like Nightlight, which see the unused embryos as an opportunity to promote anti-abortion issues. This also extends to the kind of terminology various groups use.

“It’s truly a gift to the adopting family,” said Kimberly Tyson, marketing and program director for Snowflakes. “The contract has adoption language, so the donor is relinquishing parental rights and responsibilities in that contract.”

Anti-abortion groups believe that life begins at the point the egg and the sperm fuse, therefore they use terms like “adopter” rather than “recipient.”

Van Voorhis, medical professionals and pro-abortion rights groups see embryos as a “scarce medical resource” rather than a child.

In the eyes of the law, embryos are considered property, not people. Before an exchange occurs, both the donor and the recipient have to sign a contract exchanging property, Desai said. The Felices received a standard contract from Snowflakes and then made amendments with a lawyer. Neither the recipient nor the donor receive payment in the exchange.

Donors are required to meet certain requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration, which could include testing for diseases like AIDS and hepatitis, and reviews of medical and genetic history. Although not required by the FDA, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends recipients be tested for blood type and receive psychological counseling. At Snowflakes, recipients also have to complete a home study.

The process can seem overwhelming, and there can be a significant financial commitment. But for couples like the Felices, the hardships are worth the outcome.

Shortly after getting married, they had wanted to start a family. A year passed without any results, so they went to a fertility doctor, who prescribed Jamie Felice hormones and began artificial insemination. After a life-threatening pregnancy scare and multiple attempts, the Felices tried IVF for a year. Despite doctors telling them they were healthy, they failed to conceive.

As the pressure to have a child continued to grow, Jamie Felice felt increasingly discouraged with every negative result.
“You’re kind of numb because it’s like, ‘Wow, this really isn’t going to happen?'” she said. “Like, what is the best choice?”
The night before another meeting with their fertility doctor, Jamie Felice knew she was done with IVF. She was researching traditional adoption when she stumbled onto the Snowflakes website. Her husband was on board nearly immediately.

“I liked the idea of saving these embryos because the embryo is the combination, and we believe that’s life, so all these lives are frozen that need some parents and we need some kids, so let’s hook it up,” Dan Felice said. “Let’s give them a chance.”

After being matched with a donor, six frozen embryos created at the same time in 2002 were shipped from New York, and two were implanted in Jamie Felice at Highland Park Hospital in 2009. Nine months later, in April 2010, she gave birth to Faith. Two more embryos were transferred from the same donor, and she gave birth to Matthew and Michael 16 months later in August 2011. The Felices donated the other two embryos to a family in Florida, but no pregnancies resulted.

“That gave us our first touch of what it felt like a little for (the donor family) because we’re like, ‘Oh now we’re going to give these two up,’ and if they are born, we’ll be looking at them thinking, ‘Those would have been our kids,'” Jamie Felice said.

In addition to gaining three kids, the Felices have also connected with their children’s biological parents, meeting up with them during the summers. They told Faith last year that the family they had been spending time with in Madison, Wis., was her biological family. They plan to tell the boys this year.

“We used these seeds and pictures of (Jamie) pregnant and a picture of their family, and we explained that they had a lot of seeds because they were having trouble getting pregnant and that she had some seeds left over,” Dan Felice said. “This family gave us these seeds, and we put them in Mommy, and Mommy got pregnant and we had you guys. They gave us the seeds to make you, and that’s very special to us.”

To their surprise, Faith not only understood the concept but even referred to the donor family’s daughter, her biological sibling, as her “sister.” Faith liked the idea of having a sister so much, she took a picture of her sister and taped it above her bed.

“That told us that she got it, and that it was special that it was her sister,” Dan Felice said with a smile.

The Felices said the donor couple was a valuable resource when it came to support throughout Jamie Felice’s pregnancies or medical questions about the kids. Jamie Felice said she is not worried that one day her children will leave her to be with their biological parents, and she keeps in touch with the family regularly through email.

“I feel like a traditional mom, because I am, I’m their mother, and even though we have this unique situation, it’s kind of nice to have like a second family,” Jamie Felice said. “God forbid something happened to us, there’s a family out there that loves them, and the mom, she sees them and she just stares at them … it’s so cute.”

Jamie Felice has shared her experiences with other women exploring assisted reproductive technology both online and in person. She sympathizes with the frustration and sadness that can come from trying different ways to conceive but makes sure to encourage people that the experience is worth it, even if the children end up not being biologically related.

“We tried so hard, and it’s always loss,” Jamie Felice said. “You kind of go through it, and I don’t know if you fully get over it, but I can’t imagine loving biological kids any more. Being a mom is being a mom, no matter what kind of kids you have. There are so many families that come about from nontraditional ways from different kinds of adoption, and this is just another unique way.”

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