NEWS

IVF Twins Born From 30-Year-Old Frozen Embryos

Twin babies born from 30-year-old frozen embryos
Twins Lydia Ann and Timothy Ronald, born from 30-year-old frozen embryos.

The Ridgeway Family / NEDC

Key Takeaways

  • A couple recently gave birth to twins using 30-year-old frozen embryos.
  • The embryos were donated through the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), a faith-based organization.
  • Embryo donation is an option for parents who want to give birth but won't be using their own eggs or sperm.

An Oregon couple recently gave birth to twins using embryos originally created three decades ago. The birth of Lydia Ann and Timothy Ronald Ridgeway was made possible with the help of an organization in Tennessee specializing in embryo donation. According to the University of Tennessee Preston Medical Library, the twins now hold the record as the longest-ever frozen embryos to result in a live birth.

People undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) often end up with excess embryos after they have finished growing their families. It's possible to freeze and donate these embryos so that others can bring them to term in the future and give birth. In the Ridgeway family's case, these babies, born on October 31, had been frozen as embryos way back in 1992.

Twin Babies 30 Years in the Making

Phillip and Rachel Ridgeway were already the parents of four when they decided to give birth via an embryo donation. They reached out to the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC), a Tennessee-based organization that stores cryopreserved, donated embryos. Those embryos can be transferred into the uterus to hopefully develop into a baby. NEDC detailed the Ridgeways' story in a press release sent to Verywell Family.

NEDC is a faith-based organization that only serves married heterosexual couples. While the non-profit says it works with families of all races, faiths, and ethnic backgrounds, it will not assist anyone who isn't in a straight, heterosexual relationship to conceive with their stored embryos. That includes LGBTQ+ individuals and unmarried women. The NEDC states on its website that potential parents must be married for a minimum of three years and be a genetic female and a genetic male. They also will not allow surrogates to carry the pregnancy.

Philip and Rachel Ridgeway hold their twins
Philip and Rachel Ridgeway hold their twins.

The Ridgeway Family / NEDC

According to the NEDC, the embryos were frozen on April 22, 1992. They were donated by an anonymous married couple. The sperm was taken from the male partner in his 50s and the eggs from a 34-year-old donor. It isn't clear why an egg donor was used instead of using the wife's eggs. One possibility is that she was older than 40—a point at which it's difficult to create embryos using your own eggs.

The embryos were shipped to NEDC's partner lab in Knoxville in September 2007. That's when the couple who created them donated them. By the time the Ridgeways decided to use the embryos, 30 long years had gone by.

Five embryos were thawed for the Ridgeways' transfer, but two did not survive says the spokesperson from NEDC. The other three were transferred, leading to the pregnancy.

Bringing an embryo to live birth is no easy feat. When embryos are cyropreserved, they only have about 200-300 cells, and they are quite fragile. Not all frozen embryos will survive the thaw, as was the case for two of the Ridegeways'. On top of that, embryos only have about a 50% chance of being genetically normal (a statistic that varies based on the egg donor's age at the time of retrieval). Each chromosomally-normal embryo only has a 50 to 75% chance of becoming a baby.

The fact that these new babies were able to be frozen at that stage for 30 years, survive the thaw, implant, and then grow to a live birth is pretty amazing. "This embryo donation story highlights the incredible technology that allows embryos to remain healthy and viable after all these years," says Priyanka Ghosh, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at Columbia University Fertility Center.

This embryo donation story highlights the incredible technology that allows embryos to remain healthy and viable after all these years.

PRIYANKA GHOSH, MD

Using Someone Else's Embryo

IVF is a multi-step process that involves stimulating the ovaries to produce as many eggs as possible and then extracting those eggs to be fertilized by sperm in a petri dish. It's difficult to know how many eggs will ultimately become viable embryos that can be implanted in the uterus. Even then, not all of these embryos will make it to a live birth, so it's useful to have extra embryos.

After IVF success, there may be additional embryos the parents choose not to implant. They can be cryopreserved indefinitely, donated to scientific research, discarded, or donated. In the case of donation, others have the option to carry the embryos to term. This means that the baby will not be genetically related to the birth parents.

"As a result of the success of IVF, couples have now gone from the old days of when it was hard to get a single good embryo, to being able to make an entire family and having extra embryos remaining that they can gift to others," says Dr. Ghosh.

Donated embryos must meet FDA guidelines for tissue donation. This includes screening for infectious diseases, which must be done prior to creating the embryos. Embryos can be donated to a specific person, or they may be donated to an organization that keeps them frozen while searching for prospective birth parents.

Using a donated embryo that is stored by an agency is a more complex process than using donated gametes (eggs or sperm). Egg and sperm donors generally donate without stipulation, while embryo donors generally want to be more involved in the process. "Embryo donors feel responsibility for and desire some control over the destiny of their embryos," says Deb Roberts, founder, and CEO of Embryo Connections.

In the Embryo Connections program, both families complete profiles about themselves, their criteria, and their interaction preferences. Embryo Connections also gathers a lot of medical information about the embryos and the donating family to increase confidence in the likelihood of a successful transfer and healthy live birth. Embryo Connections completes FDA screening on donors to qualify as human tissue donors.

"We support matching by finding a good fit for both families based on multiple matching factors," says Roberts. "Donating and receiving families complete embryo donation psycho-educational counseling sessions from experienced third party reproductive counselors, then execute a legal agreement, both represented by attorneys with embryo donation expertise."

Photo showing embryos

The Ridgeway Family / NEDC

Donation vs. Adoption: The Controversy

Carrying a baby from an embryo not genetically related to you is sometimes referred to as 'adoption,' although this is not a legal term. The word itself also carries with it some complicated social and ethical questions. The term embryo donation is more widely accepted in the medical community.

"A legal adoption can only occur after an individual is born," says Janene Oleaga Kurta, a family formation attorney who handles matters relating to surrogacy, gamete donation, adoption, and embryo donation practicing in New York, Maine, and New Hampshire. Using the term 'adoption' also implies personhood, which many people do not recognize for embryos.

Legally speaking, states vary greatly on the precise status of an embryo. In Louisiana, embryos are "juridical people" by legislation. New York courts, on the other hand, have determined that embryos are "quasi-property" or sort of "property plus" through the judicial system. 

Regardless of where states stand on the rights of an embryo, adoption is a concept created by law that requires a child that has already been born. "Where assisted reproduction laws were forged in an effort to keep up with medical technology, adoption laws were created to address how parents who don't share a genetic connection with a child can be recognized as that child's legal parent," Kurta explains.

Embryo adoption is the term more often used and encouraged in faith-based communities, where they believe discarding embryos is immoral. In these communities, hetero-normative families are favored, while other families are often discriminated against.

Anyone who wants to be a parent should have the right to be a parent.

DEB ROBERTS, FOUNDER AND CEO, EMBRYO CONNECTIONS

There are several agencies that are inclusive of all races, religions, marital statuses, and sexual orientations. "Anyone who wants to be a parent should have the right to be a parent," says Roberts.

To qualify at Embryo Connections, donating parents must have at least two fully expanded vitrified blasts (mature embryos), and be done with their family building. Intended parents must be 52 years old or younger, be evaluated by a reproductive endocrinologist so that they can carry a pregnancy or plan to use a gestational carrier, and pass a criminal background check.

There are several reasons to choose this path. You might have fertility issues that prevent you from using your own sperm and/or eggs, but you still want to be pregnant. Using donated embryos may also be a cost-effective option for those who can't conceive naturally. The costly part of IVF is egg retrieval surgery and its related medicines. Standard adoption after birth often costs even more.

That being said, there are fees associated with embryo donation through an agency, which vets prospective parents in a similar way to an adoption agency. The most cost-effective way to get pregnant without using your own DNA is through a direct donation from a couple you know.

If you cannot find a donated embryo from people in your network, there are organizations that can help. Other than Embryo Connections, groups like EM*POWER Donation and Embryo Solution have received grants from the Department of Health and Human Services Embryo Adoption Awareness and Services Program in support of their work. You can also always speak with your healthcare provider or fertility specialist for recommendations. Make sure to do your research, especially to make sure the organizations you choose to work with align with your personal values

What This Means For You

Embryo donation is one way to help others build their families. You can donate your own embryos to someone you know or pass them to an organization that will help you find a recipient.

If you use donated embryos, you will give birth to a child who is not biologically related to you, but who is legally your child. If you donate your own embryos, someone else may give birth to your biological child, with all legal rights as their parent. There are many ways to build families, and embryo donation is one option for parents who want to give birth.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. De Brucker, Michaël, et al. “Assisted Reproduction Counseling in Women Aged 40 and above: A Cohort Study.” Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics. 2013. doi:10.1007/s10815-013-0085-z

  3. Pavone, MaryEllen, et al. “Comparing Thaw Survival, Implantation and Live Birth Rates from Cryopreserved Zygotes, Embryos and Blastocysts.” Journal of Human Reproductive Sciences. doi:10.4103/0974-1208.82356.

  4. Greco E, Litwicka K, Minasi MG, Cursio E, Greco PF, Barillari P. Preimplantation genetic testing: where we are todayIJMS. 2020;21(12):4381. doi:10.3390/ijms21124381

  5. Singh S, Hobeika E, Knochenhauer ES, Traub ML. Pregnancy rates after pre-implantation genetic screening for aneuploidy are only superior when trophectoderm biopsy is performed on hatching embryosJ Assist Reprod Genet. 2019;36(4):621-628. doi:10.1007/s10815-019-01400-5

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  8. National Embryo Donation Center. Donation.

  9. Louisiana State Legislature. Rs 9:129.

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By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.