Why Choose Open Embryo Donation?

Angela Krueger explains some of the benefits of choosing open embryo donation as compared with anonymous embryo donation.

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For a variety of reasons some fertility patients are reluctant to destroy embryos that are left over following the completion of fertility treatments. As a result, there are unknown numbers of frozen embryos in fertility clinics across Canada. Instead of destroying surplus embryos or storing them in perpetuity, fertility patients may choose to donate them to other individuals or couples for use in reproduction.

A number of fertility clinics across Canada offer anonymous embryo donation services to their patients. This involves the anonymous matching of donors and recipients, with little identifying information exchanged between the parties. Typically details such as ethnicity, age, physical characteristics, personal profile, education, occupation, and religion of the donor are given to the recipient family. Equivalent details about the recipient family, however, are not usually provided to the donor. Also, in some cases the donor may never even be made aware of the outcome of the donation.

Only a small number of fertility patients choose anonymous embryo donation for managing their surplus embryos. Patients often regard their embryos as ‘potential children’ and have an emotionally-vested interest in what happens to them.

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For the past six years, fertility patients in Canada have also had the option of pursuing open embryo donation. The open model of embryo donation allows the donor to select the recipients. As part of the matching process, potential recipients are assessed by a professional, often a social worker or psychologist, to ensure a ‘good fit’ between the donor and the recipient. Recipients are assessed for two reasons: first, to be able to provide embryo donors with information about them (including their social and medical history and their views on parenting); and second, to assess their readiness to participate in an embryo donation plan (including their understanding of the risks and implications of participating in embryo donation). By choosing the recipient(s), a donor can maintain some control of the donation process and is more likely to feel positive about the decision to help other people with fertility problems realize their dream of having a family.  

In keeping with the well-established benefits of open adoption, open embryo donation is based on the premise that the process should be child-centered. Any children born through embryo donation will be full genetic siblings to the children of the embryo donor. The intention is that the embryo donor and recipient families be able to maintain some form of contact.

As with gamete donation, some children resulting from embryo donation will have questions about their genetic background. With anonymous embryo donation, there is typically limited information available about the donor, the number of genetic siblings, or genetic history. As well, in some cases, although not advised by most professionals, recipient parents may choose not to disclose to their child(ren) that they were born from a donated embryo(s).

Research on open adoption provides a positive parallel on which to base an open model of embryo donation. It shows that openness, including access to medical and genetic information, respects the long-term rights and needs of children, and contributes to a positive sense of identity and self-esteem. Regardless of whether the donor and recipient families have regular contact or have a more ‘arms-length’ relationship, the children concerned will benefit from having the ability to maintain a connection with people who share their genetics.

Despite the benefits of open embryo donation, potential donors and recipients may not be aware of this option and may not recognize the benefits they could experience with open donation. For example, potential recipients may not have a good understanding of the plausible value of open embryo donation to any children they may have as a result of donation. For this reason, they may not ‘buy in’ to openness. Furthermore, some medical professionals may not understand or care about openness and its benefits for all parties. Fertility clinics are accustomed to protecting patient privacy and may be wary about openness.

Embryo donation is a complex and multi-faceted issue with major long-term implications for all concerned. For individuals and couples who have embryos stored at fertility clinics throughout Canada, open embryo donation presents a positive option for managing the embryos they no longer need. For embryo recipients, open donation offers them a chance to build a family. Most importantly, openness in embryo donation facilitates potential relationships between persons with genetic ties, and recognizes the future needs and rights of the children at the heart of the process.

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Angela Krueger is a writer and trainer at Beginnings Family Services in Hamilton, Ontario. @AngelaKrueger63