In vitro fertilization is helping more couples struggling to get pregnant. The process often leaves them with left over embryos and a choice.
What to do with the excess embryos.
Luke and Joni Timm already have a full house; Isaac, 9, Mattea, 7, and 4-year old Pheobe.
“We knew we wanted to have a family and probably more than two kids, probably four. I didn't think any more than four,” Joni says.
Luke agrees with his wife, “I have always wanted a huge family. I have always said 11 makes a football team.”
Instead of a football team, Luke and Joni will have a hockey team.
“It was quite a shock at first,” Joni says of the news she is expecting triplets. But reality soon set in, “How am I going to take care of three other kids and three babies?”
Ultrasounds reveal the couple are expecting two boys and a girl. Unlike their three other children, the triplets are adopted.
“We adopted them, they arrived via FedEx,” Luke explains.
The embryos came from a couple in Alaska who struggled with fertility and turned to in vitro fertilization to get pregnant.
When they couldn`t have any more children, they put their left over embryos up for adoption.
Like traditional adoption, it requires families like the Timms to go through a lengthy screening process and can be expensive; costing from $12,000 to $16,000.
“That's important for us that we would be there for a family in need, a family that had excess embryos and was in a position that they couldn't utilize them and give them a shot at life,” Luke says.
The University of Iowa is home to one of the state`s only embryo donation programs.
At the reproductive testing lab, about 4,000 embryos are stored at 196-degrees below zero.
Some estimates put the number of frozen embryos in the U.S. at 600,000. But only a fraction are available for donation.
“It's a very small pool,” says Lab director Doctor Amy Sparks. “Most of those embryos are used.”
Dr. Sparks says about 70-percent are used by couples for infertility treatments. The majority of the remaining embryos are discarded leaving less than three percent for donation and research.
“The research donation option is maybe a happy medium because they're giving back to mankind,” Dr. Sparks says.
But this type of research is not without its share of controversy.
Doctor Nick Zavazava’s research focuses on eliminating leukemia. He says the ethical debate over using human embryonic stem cells forced him to change his research to treat the blood cancer.
“I take skin cells from the patient and get those cells in culture and then I reprogram them to become embryonic like so they can do anything that an embryonic stem cell can do,” Dr. Zavazava explains.
While he`s no longer using human embryos for research, doctors still see a need for them in the lab.
“Without the knowledge we gained in human embryonic stem cells, we would not be where we are,” Dr. Zavazava adds.
“Are we going to donate the embryo for research that could have a significant impact on medical knowledge or perhaps someone's health versus discarding that embryo? Dr.Sparks asks.
Back at the Timm household, the triplets are due in at the end of January.
Joni`s pregnancy may be different than her first three but she and Luke share the same excitement and the same love for their unborn children.
“To say that we're rescuing or saving embryos is overstating it ,” Luke says. “We are giving embryos an opportunity that wouldn't normally have an opportunity.”
The Timms say they feel blessed to have the opportunity to welcome three little babies into their family.
Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the agency the Timms used, says it averages 50 to 70 embryo adoptions a year.
You can follow along with the Timms on their blog by clicking here.