When Niki Schäfer learned that she could no longer have children ten years ago, she knew that fertility treatments were her second best choice. The resident of Moreland Hills has always wanted to experience pregnancy, so she went through several treatment cycles to give birth to her two children Noah, 8, and Lane, 6.
Schaefer's children are biological to her and her husband Brian, but some who are following a similar story for their family may not have this chance anymore. A memory test on March 4 at the Ahuja Medical Center, Beachwood University Hospital has impacted the viability of an estimated 4,000 eggs and embryos.
In response, Schaefer knew she could do something: donate her extra embryos, frozen during her second pregnancy, to someone who might have the same desire to be pregnant.
"It feels good to give to a community that really is a part of who we are," said Schaefer, a member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood. "I think we define ourselves by experiencing this infertility experience and really empathize with this whole world."
You and Brian are not the only ones. The UH situation has received the attention of at least one North Texas couple willing to donate embryos. It also raises questions about how to get Jewish children when the traditional method fails.
Loss in UH
Schäfer, 37, married in 2007 and started to have a baby soon afterwards. She was quickly diagnosed with the polycystic ovarian syndrome, which prevented her from ovulating. She received fertility treatments at the Cleveland Clinic to get her two children.
She was initially reluctant to donate her extra embryos, which were frozen on her second pregnancy if needed. Biologically, the embryos could produce children who would be their own siblings, which is "hard to wrap around," she said.
However, when she heard of the incident in UH caused by an unexpected temperature variation in a freezer housing embryos and eggs and still under investigation, her decision was made. Schaefer is not just committed to the infertility community – she volunteers and hosts events with the UH Partnership for Families, a charity that funds fertility treatments for those who can not afford them – but she loves her fertility doctor
DR. James Goldfarb, who previously worked at the Cleveland Clinic and is now department head for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at UH
In addition, she learns first-hand the disappointment associated with a non-functioning fertility treatment. It is also familiar with the associated costs, as each cycle of in vitro fertilization costs an estimated $ 12,000, although this does not result in pregnancy, in addition to other medical expenses.
"It's a common misconception about IVF that when you do it, you get pregnant," she said. "There are many times when it really does not work."
Schaefer adds that many families who are affected by the freezer malfunction, are likely to want to try again with their own new embryos or eggs, many cancer treatments as well as other medical treatments, which can cause one to become infertile. Therefore, these patients freeze eggs or embryos before such treatments, and if they are lost, there is no second chance.
"For these people, trying again is not an option, so I would hope that donated eggs or embryos could be useful to them," she said, adding that her embryos are ultimately taken to the hospital.
Demand for Financial Resources, Embryos
A potential North-Texas embryo-donating couple has an additional motive: giving children to another family who are born Jewish. The mid-30 orthodox couple had two healthy children on IVF and now have several additional embryos that they would like to move to a Jewish family in northeastern Ohio that was affected by the freezer malfunction.
"It's a shattering experience, and I feel very bad for anyone who has gone through it," said the donor, who wanted to remain anonymous, about infertility. "We are able to help."
Whether a child is born Jewish can be a complicated affair when it comes to donor, egg and embryo donors and surrogacy. While some on the less religious side, such as Schaefer, feel that children adopt the religion of their chosen parents, regardless of biology, more religious Jewish families disagree. For example, the North Texas donor said that some interpretations of halakhah, or Jewish law, say that even if a non-Jewish contract worker wears a baby of Jewish descent, the baby considers it non-Jewish. Like many children who are adopted, this child would have to convert.
"If you are Jewish, your husband is Jewish, my embryo is Jewish, then you need not worry at all," he said of his wife and wife's embryos.
The donors initially turned to the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation, which has a fund to provide financial support to families for fertility treatment prior to the UH incident. The donors were in contact with Mona Klein Allen, Foundation Director for Scholarships and Programs.
Allen said that Dallas JCF's fertility treatment fund is one of several in the country to offer such support, granting $ 70,000 to 23 couples, and at least 15 babies were born. Such funds tend to support only Orthodox couples, as it is a norm in these communities to have large families, and it is not considered a heavy burden to have Jewish children. While adoption is an option, it is difficult to ensure adoption of Jewish baby, and some religious couples worry about accepting adopted non-Jewish children (who would theoretically convert) in the community.
However, when the donor family asked if they should donate their extra embryos, Allen said she was not sure what to do next.
"We never had the ability to give away embryos," Allen said. "As a foundation, we're dealing with cash grants, but we understand the value here."
Allen, however, is a former resident of Northeast Ohio, and when she learned of the incident in UH, she recognized the potential need. She and the donors are now working to find a possible family reunion.
While details for Schaefer and the Texas donors are still to be developed, as the process of embryo donation is exhausting, they agree that embryos give hope to a family concerned with infertility – a crisis both know well. While the Texas donors want potential children to be reared in a Jewish family, Schaefer said she was happy with her embryos everywhere if they helped another ethnic group or religion get pregnant.
"I always thought that if I was not able to own children, then I would experience pregnancy so much, I would probably have used donated embryos," she said. "But I did not have to go there because I could use my own."
Here to help
For Jewish families in the area who have lost embryos or eggs due to the University Department of Pediatric Diseases, freezer dysfunction and are interested in more information about the North Texas family embryo donation, contact Mona Allen, Director of Scholarships and Programs at Dallas Jewish Community Foundation at email@example.com.