In America alone, some 500,000 frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization are being stored in hospitals and infertility clinics.
But more are discovering frozen embryo adoption not only to save embryos from destruction, but also to build the families they've always dreamed of.
Waiting in a 'Frozen Orphanage'
Meet 8-month-old twins Savanah and Morgan --the delight of their parents Jeff and Danette Gillingham of Prather, Calif.
Desperate to start a family, but unable to conceive naturally, the Gillingham's prayerfully decided to try frozen embryo adoption. They adopted embryos from three different families and on the third try, Danette became pregnant with twin girls.
"They're gorgeous and they're healthy and a joy, full of life, and just so perfect," she said. "They're human beings, they're babies, and they were frozen."
"They were frozen five years ago," the mother went on. "So they were conceived five years ago and have been basically waiting in this frozen orphanage for a chance at life."
A Chance for Life
Statistics show only about half of the 500,000 frozen embryos in the U.S. would survive being thawed. Researchers say only about 12 to15 percent total would actually become babies, but that's about 50,000 potential children.
"An embryo is not an egg, not sperm, it's a baby," explained Rod Stoddart of Nightlight Christian Adoptions. "It's a baby at it's very earliest stage of development... and destroying it is the same as abortion."
Stoddart began Snowflakes, the country's first embryo adoption program. Although there are embryo donor programs, he prefers the term "adoption."
"We use the term adoption because we think it best serves the children," he explained. "So when a child is growing up and they want to know what their story is, we can tell them they were adopted, not donated."
The mission of Snowflakes is to give every frozen embryo a chance to be born.
"Since the program began we have had 56 babies that have been born," said the program's director, Lori Maze. "In fact, I just learned of twins this morning that were born Monday and we have another 18 babies that are still due between now and Feb. 2005."
With the strong push for embryonic stem-cell research, Maze says she'd like to help more people realize embryos are "pre-born children and not just little clumps of cells in a petri-dish."
Each Embryo has a Story
But why are there so many frozen embryos out there?
Often during the in-vitro process, doctors will fertilize more eggs than are needed to implant in the mother, mainly to save the couples time and money.
That's what happened to Suzanne Gray of Atlanta, Ga. Gray and her husband Bob desperately wanted a big family, but were shocked to learn during the in-vitro process that her doctor had fertilized 23 of her eggs.
With four children already, including a set of twins from that procedure, the couple felt their family was complete and they began to pray about what to do with their remaining embryos.
"I actually started sending emails to adoption attorneys around the country just trying to find out if anyone knew of (a group that) worked with embryo adoption," Suzanne Gray explained.
She contacted Snowflakes to find her embryos a home. Ironically, a couple in Northern Virginia was contacting the group at the same time to adopt.
After three failed attempts with in-vitro fertilization, Greg and Cara Vest were hoping frozen embryo adoption would lead to the family they'd always dreamed of.
Snowflakes matched the two families, and today the Vests are the proud parents of 2-year-old Jonah.
"I can't imagine loving a child any more than I love him," Cara Vest said. "I look at him and I know that he's not genetically mine, but it is almost baffling because he is my son."
Seeing God's Hand in the Unusual
Of the 23 embryos the Vests adopted, some did not survive the thawing process. Jonah is the only baby born so far, but Cara Vest is now pregnant again with his genetic sibling.
There are also three frozen embryos still remaining that she hopes to mother in the future.
For those not familiar with embryo adoption it may seem strange, but for the vests they see God's hand in it all.
"We were driven towards these embryos," said Greg Vest. "If we'd been successful with those other attempts we would have never known anything about the Snowflakes program."
Stoddart says as long as there is in-vitro fertilization, there are going to be leftover embryos.
He added that programs like Snowflakes offer hope, not only for the frozen little lives, but for couples who may not be able to conceive a child any other way.
Although embryo adoption is still in its infancy, children like Suzanne and Morgan Gillingham and Jonah Vest are helping people realize that frozen embryos are in fact babies just waiting to be born.
* This story originally aired Oct. 11, 2004. The Snowflakes program has now lead to 200 successful births.