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In March 2003, Amy and Keith Fisher, of Tucson, Arizona, and Robin and Kurt Houk, of Stow, Ohio, traveled to California to meet for dinner. The couples were excited -- and apprehensive -- about getting together, even though they had talked on the phone and exchanged e-mail for two years. The Fishers are the parents of Samantha Erin, then 3 months old. The Houks have four children -- Sarah, then 13, and then-4-year-old triplets Kevin, Kyle and Samantha Joy.
The more the couples talked over dinner, the more they felt like old friends. "Robin and Kurt are people we'd like even if we didn't have this circumstance," Amy says. The "circumstance" is adoption, but with a 21st-century twist: The Houks are the biological parents of Samantha Erin, whom the Fishers "adopted" from the Houks as an embryo.
The couples were introduced by Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a Fullerton, California-based agency that facilitates traditional domestic and international adoption services, but also runs Snowflakes, a unique program begun in 1997 that pairs couples who have frozen embryos from their in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments with those willing to have embryos implanted in the hopes of having a child.
In the past seven years, 208 couples have donated more than 1,500 embryos to 140 infertile couples through Snowflakes; 72 babies have been born, and 16 are on the way. Embryo adoption began to draw public attention in 2001, when President Bush announced that the government would pay for limited research on stem cells that already had been taken from embryos left over at fertility clinics.
During his address Bush mentioned embryo adoption as one of several options for frozen embryos. Since then, the government has been promoting it, and in 2002 the Department of Health and Human Services gave Nightlight a $506,875 grant to increase public awareness about embryo donation through videos and a Web site.
Although Snowflakes welcomes couples of all faiths, the families involved are mostly Christians who believe that frozen embryos are human beings. After both the genetic and prospective adoptive families provide comprehensive biographical information, the genetic parents and the adoptive parents, who must undergo rigorous screening, including an FBI background check, mutually select each other.
Both parties sign a contract in which the genetic parents relinquish their rights to their embryos, and the adoptive family assumes legal responsibility for them. Under the law, this is a "transfer of property," because no court in the nation recognizes the adoption of embryos. Once the paperwork is complete, the embryos are shipped to the adoptive family's fertility clinic. Snowflakes also stipulates that the adoptive family not abort any of the resulting fetuses.
As newlyweds in 1982, Robin, now 44, and Kurt Houk, now 45, decided that once they had become established professionally -- he as a mechanical engineer, she as a nurse -- they would have two children. They began trying five years later, when Robin was 32.
When she didn't get pregnant after six months, her gynecologist ordered tests. Since her hormone levels were normal and her fallopian tubes open, he suspected that Robin had an ovulation disorder and prescribed Clomid, a drug that stimulates the ovaries. Robin conceived on the second cycle, and delivered Sarah in April 1989.
When the Houks wanted to have another child three years later, Robin took Clomid again, but failed to become pregnant after seven months. She consulted a fertility specialist, and after several years of unsuccessful treatments, the doctor suggested IVF. But the Houks opposed it. "We believe life begins at conception," Robin says. "If we were successful getting pregnant through IVF on the first try and we had embryos left over, what would we do with them?"
Devastated that she couldn't conceive, Robin went through a painful grieving process. "I was angry at God because he didn't give me what I wanted, and I was angry at everybody who could have babies," she says. "I kept thinking, What's wrong with me?" Then, to her shock, Robin became pregnant in 1995 -- only to slide back into despair when she miscarried. Still, the experience prompted the Houks to reconsider IVF, and their desire for another child soon erased their reservations.
In August 1997, Robin, then 37, took fertility drugs and produced 11 eggs -- 10 of which were fertilized with Kurt's sperm. Three embryos were placed in her uterus in the hopes that one would take; the remaining seven were frozen. Though the doctor assured the Houks that the odds of a multiple pregnancy were less than 10 percent because of Robin's age, a routine ultrasound at six weeks revealed three heartbeats. In April 1998, the triplets were delivered by scheduled cesarean section.
Deciding that their family was complete, the Houks wondered what to do with the other seven frozen embryos. As devout Christians, they opposed donating them to research or destroying them; the only option, they agreed, was to donate them to another couple. But they opposed anonymous donations -- they wanted to know whether pregnancy was achieved and how many babies were born.
In the fall of 2000, Robin believed she had found the answer to their dilemma: In a Christian magazine she read about Nightlight Christian Adoptions and its Snowflakes program, and felt confident she and Kurt would find a couple who fit their criteria: college-educated, financially secure, and Christian. Nine months later, the Houks and Fishers were matched.
In 1993, Amy Fisher was a 21-year-old junior at the University of Arizona when her periods suddenly stopped. Amy's doctor attributed the problem to stress and prescribed the birth control pill so that her cycle would resume. Six years later, Amy married Keith, a software engineer who was eager to start a family. She went off the pill, but her periods didn't return; this time, blood tests revealed that Amy's hormonal levels seemed to indicate that she had become menopausal at 21.
A fertility specialist diagnosed her with Premature Ovarian Failure (POF), a disorder that affects as many as 10 percent of women under 40. Women with POF don't ovulate regularly, or they deplete their store of eggs before reaching the end of their reproductive years. The cause is unknown, but it may be related to genetics or an autoimmune problem. There is no cure and no effective treatment. When Amy learned her only options would be an IVF procedure using a donor egg and Keith's sperm or a donated embryo, "my whole world crashed," she says.
In the summer of 2000, the Fishers paid $1,000 to become certified by the state of Arizona to adopt. An Internet search led them to Snowflakes. Initially Amy refused to consider it, having already ruled out trying to conceive with an anonymous donor egg. "Why would I want a donated embryo?" she remembers thinking to herself. But as the months wore on, Keith persuaded Amy to rethink her position.
"When he said that we'd actually be saving the embryos, a lightbulb came on," Amy says. "This was the best of both worlds. We get to carry the child and be parents from day one." In the winter of 2001, the Fishers contacted Snowflakes, paid the $3,500 application fee, and completed the agency's detailed questionnaire, disclosing their views on everything from parenting to religious upbringing, and submitting a short biography and photos.
Late that spring, Snowflakes sent the Fishers' materials to the Houks. Robin and Kurt instantly recognized themselves in Amy and Keith; both couples are active in their churches and avid travelers, and both wanted minimal contact after the adoption -- just the occasional updates and pictures. The Houks chose the Fishers, and in September 2001 the couples signed the documents.
Amy began taking estrogen and progesterone to prepare her uterus to receive the embryos, three of which were thawed and implanted two months later. The odds of implantation were slim -- just 20 percent with frozen embryos, compared with 30 percent for fresh ones -- and the pregnancy test came back negative. In March 2002, the last four embryos were transferred to Amy's uterus; two weeks later, tests revealed that she was pregnant with one baby.
Amy began exchanging monthly e-mail messages with the Houks. After she learned she was carrying a girl from an ultrasound, she wrote to them about baby names and asked if they would mind if she and her husband chose Samantha (the Houks already had a daughter by that name). The Houks didn't object. On December 12, 2002, 8-pound Samantha Erin arrived. The Fishers' dream of parenthood had come true at last.
From the moment Amy became pregnant, the Houks regarded the baby as the Fishers' child. "She's my blood but Amy gave her life," Robin says. The families had no immediate plans to meet, but left open the possibility that they would get together one day when the Houk triplets and Samantha Fisher were old enough to understand what had happened.
In the winter of 2003, Snowflakes invited both couples to appear in a promotional video. The Fishers were reluctant to travel to California with Samantha but changed their minds after the Houks said they would participate and suggested synchronizing their trips for the same weekend. The Houks were thrilled to meet Samantha. "I didn't let myself cry when I held her," Robin says, "but she felt like one of my own." Adds Kurt: "Samantha is like a niece. But at the end of the day, she goes home with Amy and Keith."
After returning to Ohio, the Houks asked the Fishers whether they could send birthday cards to Samantha and sign them "Uncle Kurt and Aunt Robin." Amy and Keith were delighted. "It felt good to put a name to their relationship with Samantha," Amy says. "I told them, 'You'll always be a part of her life.'" Both couples, who hope to meet again someday, are convinced they did the right thing. "We're thankful for what Amy and Keith have done for us, as much as they're thankful for what we did for them," Robin says. "Kurt and I have been down that dark tunnel of infertility. To give the gift of parenthood is wonderful."
As for Amy and Keith, now both 32, they are grateful too, and not just for the joy Samantha, now a happy and energetic 2-year-old, has brought to their lives. On November 3, 2004, Amy gave birth to Madeline, who was conceived, completely by surprise, the natural way. "It was a huge shock," says Amy. "We thought this would never happen. But now we have two beautiful girls to love. It's a wonderful feeling."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2005.