The U.S. has a problem with frozen embryos, and no one has a good answer as to what to do with them. The exact number is difficult to determine, but extrapolation from past studies indicates there are likely well over one million embryos being kept in storage, and that number is continually increasing.

Proposed Solutions

When couples (or an individual) choose to make use of IVF, they usually end up with far more embryos than can or should be transferred. These “excess” embryos are typically frozen for future use. There are numerous options for dealing with these frozen embryos, but none of them are particularly good. The best solution would be for the parents to attempt transfer, but most are not able or willing, either because they cannot pay the costs or do not want any more children. While some have suggested that parents should be required to use all the embryos they create, forcing parents to birth children they neither want nor can afford is a non-starter in today’s cultural climate.

Many couples keep their embryos frozen indefinitely on the chance they will decide to have another child. While this allows the parents to put off making a choice, it is not sustainable. As more and more couples undergo IVF, the number of embryos in storage will continue to rise. Frozen embryos don’t have expiration dates after which they are no longer viable—embryos frozen for up to thirty years have already been successfully brought to term.[1] While storage allows parents to avoid making a decision, childbearing age does not last indefinitely; when that window closes, so too does the embryos’ chance to be gestated by their biological mother.

If frozen embryos are not used by their parents and cannot be kept indefinitely, some have proposed using them for research—since no one seems to want them, they might as well be useful to the rest of society. For those who believe embryos are human beings worthy of respect, this is unacceptable. As the Christian ethicist Gilbert Meilaender has written, “Why, if [frozen embryos] are no longer needed or wanted for reproductive purposes, should we suppose that they are still available for our use, still a handy resource for other purposes entirely unrelated to their well-being or their natural end?”[2] At the same time, thawing the embryos and letting them die a “natural” death isn’t right either; if they are human beings, doesn’t that mean we should be trying to help them?

This lack of good options has paralyzed the decision-making of many couples with frozen embryos. Many simply stop paying for storage and abandon them rather than face responsibility for what they have created.[3]

Benefits of Embryo Adoption

Some have proposed that, instead of destroying them or leaving them to languish, couples should “adopt” frozen embryos and bring them to term themselves. Note that the terminology around this practice can be fuzzy. Under U.S. law, “adoption” is something that can only be done for human beings; most jurisdictions do not recognize embryos as human beings, nor do they permit adoption until after a child has been born. Thus, many prefer the term “embryo donation” instead of “embryo adoption.” However, given the pro-life conviction that embryos are human beings, I will continue to use the term “embryo adoption” throughout.

Embryo adoption would seem to fit very well into a Christian pro-life ethos. From the earliest days of the church, Christians were defenders of the unborn, to the extent that their beliefs could be described as a “dedicated defense of life at the embryonic stage.”[4] Christians were further known for adopting infants that had been abandoned by their families. Both of these have remained important distinctives of the church over the centuries, and the proliferation of frozen embryos today offers a new opportunity for Christians to display both of these values.

Much like traditional adoption, embryo adoption is not just for childless couples or those with infertility—anyone who is able and willing can provide a frozen embryo a chance at life. Given the options of perpetual neglect or destruction, embryo adoption presents an opportunity to show God’s love and mercy to the “least of these” in our midst. And considering that the problem of unwanted frozen embryos has arisen from parents’ desire to have a child genetically related to them, the decision to adopt a genetically unrelated frozen embryo becomes a powerful statement: in the words of Catholic bioethicist Christopher M. Reilly, “a radically counter-cultural act of mercy.”[5]


While there are many benefits to embryo adoption, it is not without drawbacks. For starters, the process is quite expensive, averaging $14,000 to $20,000 or more, a cost that does not change whether one uses a traditional fertility clinic or an explicitly Christian adoption agency.[6] With over one million frozen embryos in storage, it could cost upwards of $20 billion to assist them all. And these funds will largely go towards the fertility industry that has created this problem in the first place, giving tacit approval to the continued artificial creation of embryos and allowing it to continue unchecked.

Apart from the costs, the sheer number of frozen embryos makes adoption a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem. Though adoption is becoming more common, the supply of adoptive parents cannot keep up with the proliferation of frozen embryos. Consider, for example, the Christian adoption agency Nightlight, which bills its Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program as “the only licensed and accredited embryo adoption agency in the world.” Nightlight established its program in 1997 and, over the past 25 years, has completed only 1,000 embryo adoptions, though it currently averages 150–160 per year.[7] The same is true for the National Embryo Donation Center, which since 2003 has facilitated around 1,100 live births via embryo adoption.[8] Without discounting the life-giving benefit these services have provided, their efforts have helped a mere 0.21 percent of currently frozen embryos. There are just not enough parents to go around.

Finally, embryo adoption, like all artificial reproductive technologies, carries with it the risk of commodifying children. There can be purely altruistic reasons for pursuing embryo adoption, such as the above-mentioned attempt to rescue a child bound for destruction and give him a chance at life. But for many couples, especially those who suffer from infertility, embryo adoption can become bound up in a reproductive project that treats the child as a commodity to be acquired, rather than a gift to be received and a person to be cherished.

Christians are certainly not immune to the pitfalls of commodification. For example, the National Embryo Donation Center, whose vision involves sharing the love of Christ through embryo adoption, troublingly asserts that “infertility makes a couple feel lonely, empty and incomplete. The joy of having a child is like no other experience in life, fulfilling the heart’s deepest desire.”[9] This rhetoric suggests using children to fulfill parental desires rather than appreciating them for their own sake, and it ignores the many losses experienced by those with infertility that even embryo adoption cannot solve, such as the opportunity to conceive a child with one’s spouse and to pass along one’s genetic heritage.[10] This places expectations on an adopted child to heal his parents’ hurt. But God alone can fulfill our deepest desires; anything else, no matter how good, is secondary.

While it would be convenient if there were always a clear distinction between rescuing a frozen embryo and selfishly making use of reproductive technologies to fulfill parents’ personal desires, the reality is that human motivations cannot be so easily disentangled. Discernment is required to determine whether embryo adoption is a moral choice for any given couple. While unraveling the varied motivations for pursuing embryo adoption may be difficult, prospective parents should think first and foremost of the child and his or her wellbeing.

An Imperfect Solution

In their attempts to expand their families through artificial reproductive technologies, many parents have failed to consider the human beings created and then neglected as a by-product of fulfilling their desires. If the only options for frozen embryos are neglect or destruction, adoption arises as a life-changing alternative and truly has the potential to be a “radically counter-cultural act of mercy” for the least of these among us. Though not all will be called to it, those who can avoid the pitfalls of supporting the fertility industry and commodifying children have a unique opportunity to rescue a human being and give a powerful testimony to the love and mercy of God.

At the same time, the ever-growing number of frozen embryos should remind us that embryo adoption is only necessary because of a fertility industry that has prioritized profit and consumer satisfaction over ethics. Any attempts to improve the plight of frozen embryos will be ineffective if we do not work to change the practices that make such adoption necessary in the first place. For those it benefits, embryo adoption is a great boon, but it remains an imperfect solution, one which by necessity involves us in the brokenness of the world, even as we try to shine the light of Christ’s love into it.


[1] Michael Cook, “New world record for the longest frozen embryo—30 years,” Bioedge (Nov. 22, 2022):

[2] Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 4th ed. (Eerdmans, 2020), 144.

[3] Anna Hecker, “What Should I Do with My Unused Embryos?” New York Times (April 15, 2020):

[4] John T. Noonan Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives, ed. John T. Noonan Jr. (Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), 11.

[5] Christopher M. Reilly, “Embryo Adoption: A Radically Counter-Cultural Act of Mercy,” Dignitas (Spring–Winter 2020):

[6] Marissa Conrad and James Grifo, “How Much Does IVF Cost?”, Forbes Health (Mar. 7, 2023):; “Program Fees and Financial Helps,” Snowflakes (acc. Mar. 14, 2023):|0. Snowflakes lists several costs, including a fixed fee of $9,000, a home study fee of $2,000–$3,500, and clinic fees of $4,000–$10,000.

[7] “Embryo Adoption Resources,” Snowflakes (acc. Mar. 14, 2023):

[8] “About Us,” National Embryo Donation Center (acc. Mar. 14, 2023):

[9] “Adoption Frequently Asked Questions,” National Embryo Donation Center (acc. Mar. 10, 2023):

[10] See Patricia Irwin Johnston, Adopting After Infertility (Perspectives Press, 1992), 20.