WHITEWATER — After struggling with infertility for years, a Whitewater couple is going to become parents in an uncommon way: through embryo adoption.
Jason and Shelbie Toevs are expecting a baby girl in early July, just shy of their ninth wedding anniversary. This joy comes after a hard journey to parenthood. Five years ago, they miscarried twins. Medical fertility treatments were unsuccessful, and in 2017, the Toevs were coming close to the end of their choices.
Shelbie read about embryo adoption while researching their insurance coverage of fertility treatments. “Jason was not OK with IVF or adopting an infant,” she said, “but I was not OK with being done. I kept mentioning it in conversation to people and Jason. And one day we just pulled the trigger.”
Embryo adoption is made possible when frozen embryos remain after a couple who has used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to achieve pregnancy has completed their family. They can donate those embryos to another couple, choosing a recipient family. This type of adoption can be open, closed or semi-open.
“A big pull for us was once the paperwork is signed, the recipients call all of the shots,” said Shelbie. “Since embryos are seen as property and not a baby, the legal side of the adoption treat it as you would a car.”
Once a contract is signed between the two parties, the donors’ rights are severed and transferred to the recipients.
Though there are other ways to adopt embryos, the Toevs decided to go through an agency, Snowflakes Embryo Adoption. They wanted the emotional support and guidance, as well as assistance with any complications.
Snowflakes helps clients determine what they are looking for in donors: race, age, how many embryos, health history and more. However, specific physical traits aren't one of the choices they offer, as the agency doesn’t want recipients to feel they are replacing a genetic baby, though the baby becomes theirs biologically.
The Toevs went through training on the unique emotional aspects. Shelbie admired Jason’s patience and faith. “Never once did he panic or question the timeline. He knew that just as God had led us to embryo adoption through a random insurance search, he would lead us to the perfect embryos/couple.”
By June 2018, Snowflakes matched the Toevs with a couple who had 14 remaining embryos and were willing to give them eight. The Toevs chose an open adoption, calling the donor’s genetic siblings “embryo cousins” and saying they have an amazing relationship with their donors.
By October, after various ultrasounds and hormones, Shelbie was physically prepared for the transfer. They chose the Dallas IVF clinic because of its high rating with embryo adoptions. Embryos are shipped similarly to packages with FedEx, kept frozen in a container and maintained at a perfect temperature, along with other criteria.
Embryos are frozen between days three to six after conception. The Toevs’ clinic prefers Day 5, which is the blastocysts stage. At this point, the embryo is still dividing and cleaving but also growing. The Toevs’ adopted embryos were graded AA 5 Day embryos; literally perfect, though this doesn’t guarantee a successful implantation and pregnancy.
Their doctor gave them the option of transferring one or two.
“I knew from hearing other stories with IVF, that for the first transfer I wanted to transfer two,” said Shelbie. “It doesn’t really raise the success rate, but in my mind, it made me feel better that if one failed we had a chance for one more in the transfer cycle.”
On the day of the transfer, the embryos are thawed about four hours earlier. While it was an emotionally charged day for the couple, Shelbie was “pretty loopy” with medication needed to help her body relax, while Jason remained stable and calm. The transfer went smoothly, and the couple waited at a Dallas hotel during her mandated 24-hour bedrest.
Back in Kansas on modified bedrest, Shelbie waited just a few days before nervously taking pregnancy tests. As her HCG levels rose, the positive lines on the tests became stronger. Shelbie welcomed this assurance, while Jason had felt sure the transfer meant she was pregnant.
Ten days post-transfer, a blood test confirmed the pregnancy. Sonograms showed that though both embryos had implanted, only one was growing. The Toevs’ dreams were coming true, with a baby due in July.
The Toevs were in for more surprises. At nine weeks, they did a “sneak peek” blood test to find out the baby’s gender. The result said they were expecting a boy. The couple joyfully celebrated with friends and family.
At 18 weeks, during a sonogram, they received the shocking news that their baby is, in fact, a girl. As both embryos had implanted, the other sac was still there and the results of the blood test had picked up the Y chromosome of the male embryo. Only the girl continued growing past six weeks.
“We do not regret sharing the gender early on like we did!” Shelbie shared on social media. “We got to celebrate the LIFE of the other embryo. That, that little embryo held DNA and significant meaning."
The Toevs feel that embryo adoption is an underserved and unknown component of IVF, where undesired frozen embryos are discarded. They believe life begins at conception and are thrilled to be able to bring their little Snowflake baby into the world.