By Ana Good
Birmingham-area resident Mary Leah Miller will celebrate her first Mother’s Day this year as a new mother to 4-month-old twins.
Mary Leah gave birth to the babies a few days before Christmas, following a nearly 10-year infertility journey she shared with her husband, Rodney.
“Like many couples, we thought that we would get pregnant – not immediately, but eventually,” Mary Leah said. “We knew it might take some time, but there were no issues on either side of our families that we were aware of, so we did not expect to have challenges conceiving when we made the decision to start trying to have kids.”
After years of unsuccessful fertilization treatments, Mary Leah’s path to motherhood involved a relatively unknown process called embryo adoption. The Millers’ baby boy and girl, Dalton and Mary Elizabeth, had, in their own way, also experienced a period of waiting. The babies had been frozen as embryos as part of another family’s in vitro fertilization treatments at around the same time the Millers began trying to start a family.
The Millers said they tried for a year to conceive a baby before being referred to a fertility specialist. The process began with rounds of a fertility medication called clomid that stimulates ovulation for a woman, Mary Leah explained. From there, fertility specialists suggested intrauterine insemination, before the couple moved on to attempt in vitro fertilization. During IVF, mature eggs are collected from ovaries and fertilized in a lab before being transferred to the woman’s uterus, according to the Mayo Clinic.
On the day the couple arrived at the clinic to have their embryos transferred to Mary Leah, they were met with heartbreaking news. They were told the embryos had “arrested,” Mary Leah said, meaning the cells of the embryos had stopped dividing three days after being fertilized and were no longer viable.
Determined to continue trying to start a family, the couple sought treatment with fertility specialists around the country and attempted the IVF process an additional five times. The result was the same each time – the embryos would stop developing before they reached viability and a chance for transfer. After the sixth attempt, doctors diagnosed a likely egg quality issue and explained that the chance of conceiving babies that carried the couples’ own genes was unlikely.
Mary Leah and Rodney said they considered their other options, including egg donations and traditional adoption processes, but none felt right.
During Memorial Day weekend in 2020, the Millers felt hopeful again for the first time in years when they heard during a conversation with friends about the possibility of embryo adoption. After learning more about the Snowflakes Embryo Adoptions program and their friends’ own experience, they became convinced they had found the right path forward and quickly reached out to the organization.
“When we got on the Snowflakes website it was the first time in a long time we felt good about where things were going,” Rodney said, “and felt confident that after 10 years of negative pregnancy tests, our desire to have a family was going to be fulfilled.”
The Snowflakes program, according to its website, has been assisting with embryo donations and adoptions since 1997. It is a division of Nightlife Christian Adoptions, which also assists families and individuals experiencing unplanned pregnancies or wanting to take part in international, domestic or foster care adoptions.
The Snowflakes program began with the mission to help families that had remaining embryos from previous IVF treatments frozen in storage. Many donor families had decided their families were complete or had been medically advised not to undergo another pregnancy but did not want to have their remaining embryos discarded.
For the Millers, starting the embryo adoption process amid lockdowns during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down some, Mary Elizabeth recalled, but the couple was determined. What followed were many of the same steps that are part of a traditional adoption, including background checks and home visits.
“Fingerprinting is also part of the process,” she said, “which was kind of challenging during COVID. A very nice police captain allowed me to come in and get fingerprinted when I explained why I needed them.”
The couple also completed a lengthy family profile, in which they specified details of the kind of family they wanted to adopt from, as well as their preferences for the relationship between the donor and adoptive families. Rodney said another part of the process involved a lengthy phone interview with Snowflakes in which they discussed family health history and any preferences concerning various genetic factors related to the donor family.
“We were trying to make sure we weren’t being a little too strict and, you know, falling into that category of wanting a boutique baby,” he said.
The contractual aspects of the embryo adoption process were particularly interesting for the Millers, who are both local attorneys.
“Where it differs a little from a traditional adoption is the law hasn’t quite caught up with the science,” Rodney said. “The law basically sees embryo adoption as the transfer of property. There is a contract between us and the placing family. It’s really no different than what you would write up if you’re selling someone your car.”
Once the team at Snowflakes found a family match, the Millers adopted four initial embryos. The first embryo transfer did not result in a pregnancy, Mary Leah said, but she received her first positive pregnancy test after the second transfer. Despite having miscarried that baby at around 8 weeks, Mary Leah said the very fact that she was able to get pregnant after nearly a decade of trying filled the couple with continued hope.
Having exhausted all of the embryos they adopted from the first donor family, the Millers returned to Snowflakes to adopt five embryos from another donor family.
Rodney explained that this second donor family had used IVF as part of their own fertility journey, which had resulted in two healthy boys. During the second pregnancy, however, the mother had serious health complications and was advised not to get pregnant again. The family still had five remaining viable embryos, however, and turned to Snowflakes to donate the remaining embryos and give them a chance at life.
2 for 1
In April 2022, doctors transferred two of those embryos to Mary Leah. The Millers said they made the decision to transfer two after consulting their doctor, who did indicate the chance of having twins was a possibility. The Millers said when they realized the transfer had been successful and that Mary Leah was pregnant with twins, they were beyond excited.
“We were absolutely thrilled,” said Mary Leah, who went on to add that both she and Rodney had twins on each side of their families. “We were ecstatic to know that both of these little embryos had implanted and that we were going to have twins. At that point, honestly, it did not even matter what sex these babies were. We were just excited that we were having a baby – and we got to have two.”
The couple agreed the babies are very well behaved and are a joy to be around.
“We don’t claim that because of our 10-year wait that we love our kids more than other people,” Rodney said with a laugh, “but there’s a good argument to be made that we appreciate them more. They may be able to get away with a little more than other kids because of that.”
Snowflakes encourages open relationships between the donor and adoptive families, and the Millers said they have been in touch with the donor family, occasionally sending pictures and updates about Dalton and Mary Elizabeth. The biological parents, however, Rodney explained, have no legal right to the children.
“Mary Leah carried them. She had nine months of pregnancy. She delivered them. Their birth certificates have our names on them as parents,” Rodney said.
Rodney said they do plan to be open with their children about their journey when they are old enough, and they’ll help their twins if the children want interaction with their biological parents or siblings.
Kimberly Tyson, vice president of the Snowflakes program, said an estimated 1 million embryos are currently frozen in cryobanks across the United States.
“When people create embryos, they often times are pretty laser focused on the goal of having their own baby,” she said, “so they’re not really thinking too much or long and hard about, ‘What am I going to do with remaining embryos, because they might not even think they’ll have remaining embryos.”
Dalton and Elizabeth are babies 1,000 and 1,001 born as part of the Snowflakes adoption program.
Tyson said families can experience the joys of pregnancy and birth with the Snowflakes program, often at a cost less expensive than IVF rounds.
“A traditional IVF is going to cost $15,000 to $25,000,” she said. “If you have to buy human eggs, that’s going to add another $10,000, maybe $15,000 to that. Most families find that it’s going to take two to three IVF cycles in order to achieve a pregnancy.”
While comparing the options is not exact, Tyson said it is important to include the variable cost that Snowflakes families incur. A $9,000 agency fee is standard, she said. Added to that is the cost of a home study, which can run $2,000 to $3,000. The fertility clinic will also charge medical fees, which is about $5,000 on average. The whole cost of doing one transfer is approximately $15,000 to $16,000.
Another detail that sets Snowflakes apart, according to Tyson, is that all remaining embryos are adopted by a single family. Families hoping for more than one baby, therefore, would be matched with a donor family that had five or more embryos left over.
No Regrets (Almost)
On the verge of celebrating her first Mother’s Day, Mary Leah said that, despite its challenges, she would not change their journey.
“For many couples, and especially many women, yes, pregnancy has its own challenges. But, I think for those women who want to have children, many of them want to experience carrying a child, birthing a child,” she said. “That is one of the things you get to do with an embryo adoption; you get to carry the baby. You kind of blend the best of both worlds in terms of adoption and a childbirth experience. That experience for me was just amazing.”
Rodney wholeheartedly agreed.
“It was a difficult 10 years. No doubt, but looking back on it now, especially as we sit here and hold these two, we wouldn’t change anything about it,” he said. “The thing we like to say is the only regret, if you would call it that, about our journey is that we didn’t learn about embryo adoption sooner.”
Families interested in the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program can visit their website at nightlight.org/snowflakes-embryo-adoption-donation.