Hoisting carry-ons into overhead bins, I peered between my up-stretched arms. My two young sons played in their seats. Here was the picture of everything I’d prayed for — the children for whose births I’d emotionally labored through fertility treatments, and our one-way airline tickets back to Atlanta after five years living in Israel. The heartening sight totally contrasted with a discomfiting, cold emptiness. I swallowed hard and told myself my yearning for a third was foolish. Thinking of repeating fertility treatment wearied me.
At home in Atlanta, however, the desire only strengthened. After five additional years of unsuccessful attempts, embryo donation presented itself as the best option.
What I thought would be a straightforward process was anything but that. As the Jewish Fertility Foundation’s founder, I’m grateful for the platform to share what I know about embryo donation with people who consider it.
Embryo donation: What I wish I knew sooner
There are three main areas of embryo donation I wish I’d been more prepared for: family contact options, medical and psychological testing, and legal considerations.
Family contact options
Most embryo donors, like my former client Jen Stern, prefer an anonymous donation.
“I wanted to give this gift to a single mother and let her have her own family,” Jen says, “while we have our own family.”
So, when another former client, Rebecca, came to me for advice on her wish for an open donation, it didn’t surprise me that finding willing recipients had been challenging.
At the time, I was years into the painful journey of trying to conceive my third child. The idea struck me: Why don’t I use Rebecca’s embryos? Today, Rebecca is more than a sister to me. Our children enjoy a cousin-like relationship. I never imagined my family would expand in this way. It’s a blessing stacked on a blessing.
When deciding whether to pursue an open or closed donation, Lauren Berman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in fertility-related issues, urges, “Take your time to percolate. Most people have a bit of discomfort with all the options. It’s not an easy decision to make.”
Medical and psychological testing
My first surprise, preparing to receive Rebecca’s embryos, was a disorganized medical testing process. Open donations are uncommon. Typically, embryos are anonymous, and already housed in the recipient’s physician’s laboratory. Because we transported embryos across states, we operated under separate FDA guidelines. Our donor was required to take STD tests for three-year-old embryos! It didn’t make sense.
Psychological testing was another stumbling block. With open embryo donation, psychological testing isn’t to ensure fitness for parenthood. Rather, psychologists determine whether proposed relationships between donor and recipient will function healthily.
While doing the initial evaluation, our psychologist made a grave mistake and misunderstood Rebecca to indicate a family history of addiction, before the error was made clear my husband and I took no issue. Our practitioner voiced that she thought it strange that my husband and I were unbothered at first and felt that Rebecca and my husband had similar personalities and it would not be a good fit and did not clear us to move forward. Because of my standing in the fertility community, a different psychologist offered to give us a new evaluation and after that, we were cleared to proceed.
Once we cleared the medical and psychological hurdles, our next step was to draft the legal contract.
Our attorneys walked us through yet more scenarios. Rebecca would donate two embryos. If I get pregnant with the first one, what happens to the second? The second embryo wouldn’t return to Rebecca’s custody, but she did stipulate it be “donated forward.”
We also made a verbal agreement that Rebecca’s children and mine visit at least once per year. Adoption best practices include the child knowing their birth family, to protect against Genetic Sexual Attraction.
Jen Stern, at the closed donation of her embryos, opted for a different stipulation. “[The recipient] would allow her children to meet ours when our daughter turned eighteen, so the kids could define relationships with each other. We didn’t want open, we wanted open…later.”
Because legal contracts are as personal as the families they represent, it’s important donors and recipients each have their own attorney. As the recipient, I was responsible for fees for both my attorney and Rebecca’s — another piece of the embryo donation puzzle I want others to know of in advance.
Sometimes people ask if I would have sought embryo donation if I knew beforehand what I know now.
The simple answer is yes.
My son’s name is Matan — “gift” in Hebrew. We have been up-front with our son about his conception story. Today we have a four-year-old who darts about our house like a fireball, shrieking, “I’m a gift! Mommy got an embryo!”
The less simple answer is that I treated embryo donation as a last resort — and I wish I had been willing to accept it earlier.
The five years preceding Matan’s birth were full of trials. I persevered. As a person with anxiety, simply allowing myself joy and fulfillment is a mountain climb. I’ll forever remain thankful and proud I built the family I knew G-d wanted for me.
Elana Frank "birthed" the Jewish Fertility Foundation. It took her ten years and countless rounds of IUI and IVF cycles and embryo donation to make three babies. Because she was a resident of Israel at the time of her first two children, their socialized medicine allowed her to inexpensively reach a solution. When she returned to the U.S., she realized that others weren’t as lucky as her — in terms of treatment success, community support, and financial aid. She learned for others it takes years, miscarriages, unbearable debt, oceans of tears, and heartache before finally giving birth, if at all. And with the cost of IVF ranging on average from $14,000 - $25,000 in America many don’t even have a chance for a chance. Knowing that there was this grave need for funding, support, and enhanced awareness of this sometimes “unspoken” issue in the Jewish community, she decided to create the Jewish Fertility Foundation.