Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell is starting a new "embryo adoption" service, where couples who have gone through in vitro fertilization donate any leftover embryos to infertile couples. While that practice is, in itself, not particularly controversial, the question of what's to be done with some 400,000 frozen embryos in storage nationwide...

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The day the frozen embryo arrived via FedEx was the day Maria Lancaster began experiencing firsthand what she had always believed: that human life begins at conception.

Lancaster was 46 and, after having three miscarriages, she and her husband, Jeff, longed for a child. One day, they heard about “embryo adoptions” — where couples who’ve gone through in vitro fertilization donate any leftover embryos to infertile couples. Several months of soul-searching later, they received a frozen embryo from a North Carolina clinic — cells that were thawed and implanted in Lancaster’s womb.

Now Lancaster looks at her 5-year-old daughter Elisha — lively and precocious — and thinks: miracle. “It was a demonstration to us that every embryo is a complete, unique and total human being in its tiniest form,” Lancaster said.

Earlier this month, Lancaster launched an “embryo adoption” service through Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell. The service aims to match couples who want to donate embryos with those who want to receive them.

It’s one of only a few such services nationwide and, as far as Lancaster knows, the only one run by a church, though many such services are Christian-based.

While the practice of donating embryos to infertile couples is, in itself, not particularly controversial, the question of what’s to be done with some 400,000 frozen embryos in storage nationwide touches on some of the most controversial issues of the day, from abortion to stem-cell research.

The stored embryos are the result of fertility treatments. When a couple undergoes in vitro fertilization, the doctor retrieves a woman’s eggs and mixes them with sperm in a lab. If embryos result, a certain number are transferred to the woman’s uterus and any extra ones are frozen for future use.

But often, especially once a couple has children, the additional embryos are no longer needed. The couple can then donate them to other infertile couples, give them away for research purposes, discard them or pay to keep them in storage.

Those who support research using stem cells derived from embryos see in it hope for cures for diseases that afflict millions, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

Others believe such research is wrong. “All these embryos are just people in an early stage of life,” maintains Pastor Joe Fuiten, who heads Cedar Park Church. “We can’t just treat them like trash.”

Many others disagree that embryos are people, and that point of contention is central to the larger issues surrounding embryo donation.

Such issues came to the forefront when President George W. Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and may come up again once President-elect Obama, who supports relaxing those restrictions, takes office.

For many fertility clinics, it comes down to letting patients decide for themselves when human life begins. And “from there, they choose the option of what to do with their embryos,” said Stephanie Frickleton with Pacific Northwest Fertility in Seattle, which runs its own embryo-donation program.

Seemed strange at first

At the Lancasters’ home in the Snoqualmie Valley, Elisha is clearly cherished.

She twirls in her dress made of black velvet and pink tulle. Then she grabs her father’s hand, pretending to paint his fingernails blue — though “sometimes it changes color based on whether you’re a boy or a girl,” she says.

Maria Lancaster, president of a ship-supply company, acknowledges that when she first heard about embryo transfers, “the thought of putting someone else’s kid in your body” seemed strange.

For her, seeing Elisha come into being from two cells that had been frozen for four years before being implanted in her womb gave form to the words from the Bible, where God says: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

Though brochures for Embryo Adoption Services of Cedar Park clearly come out against embryonic stem-cell research, Lancaster sees her work as noncontroversial, saying it gives infertile couples the gift of a child and embryos currently stored in freezers a chance at life.

Sean Tipton, spokesman for the 8,500-member American Society of Reproductive Medicine, says his group supports embryo donation as one of several options open to in vitro patients.

What he objects to is the term “embryo adoption,” saying it is used by groups that “want to elevate the moral status of the embryo to be the equivalent of an existing child.”

Scientifically speaking, that’s simply flawed thinking, he says, explaining that in natural conceptions, only 25 percent of fertilized eggs develop into babies.

Embryo transfers themselves are often unsuccessful, since many embryos don’t survive the freezing-and-thawing process. And even after an embryo has been implanted, the pregnancy rate is not high.

Equating a fertilized egg with a living child would mean “you can’t allow freezing of these embryos for later use (because) we don’t freeze babies,” and you can’t allow abortions or some forms of contraception such as IUDs, Tipton said.

“I think in most people’s minds there’s a difference between a fertilized egg and a baby,” said Karen Cooper, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. Calling embryo donations “adoptions” is a “political stunt, appealing on emotions,” she said.

In any case, given the 400,000 frozen embryos in storage, the number of embryo transfers has been small. Tipton thinks that’s because potential donors are uncomfortable with the idea of one of their genetic children being raised by someone else and those who go to fertility clinics do so wanting to have their own child. Indeed, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which runs one of the largest “embryo adoption” services in the country, says its program has resulted in 194 births over the last decade. Another large program, the 5-year-old National Embryo Donation Center, has logged nearly 100.

“A peace about it”

For Heather Mayer, 36, of Silverdale, the numbers don’t matter much.

When Mayer, an adoptions coordinator at a local Christian organization, decided to “adopt” an embryo, it was a way of expressing her anti-abortion values, she said. She also wanted to experience pregnancy.

These days, she not only has a 10-month old daughter, Amelia, but a relationship with Amelia’s genetic parents. Both couples were willing to get to know each other, and exchanged pictures and regular e-mails. The two couples plan to meet in March.

Lisa Maritz of Everett, a 39-year-old homemaker with three children, is committed to donating her four frozen embryos to Maria Lancaster’s new service.

She acknowledges having long discussions with her husband about the idea of giving away what could become the genetic siblings of her three boys — two born after in vitro fertilization, one conceived naturally.

“We have a peace about it,” she says of the decision. “We want to give another family the gift of having their own family.”