In April 1992, Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last” topped the Billboard 100, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was running for the White House, “Who’s the Boss?” aired its final episode, and the babies born to Rachel and Philip Ridgeway a few weeks ago were frozen as embryos.
Lydia and Timothy Ridgeway were born on Oct. 31 and stemmed from what may be the longest-frozen embryos ever to result in a live birth, according to the National Embryo Donation Center.
The previously known record holder was Molly Gibson, who was born in 2020 from an embryo that had been frozen for almost 27 years. Molly took the recording from her sister Emma, who was born from an embryo that was frozen for 24 years.
It is possible that an older frozen embryo was used; Although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks success rates and reproductive technology data, they do not track how long embryos have been frozen. But there is no evidence that an older embryo results in a live birth.
“There’s something confusing about it,” Philip Ridgeway said as he and his wife cradled their newborns on their laps at their home outside of Portland, Oregon. “I was 5 years old when God gave life to Lydia and Timothy and He has kept that life ever since.”
“In a way, they’re our oldest kids, even though they’re our youngest kids,” Ridgeway added. The Ridgeways have four other children, ages 8, 6, 3 and almost 2, none of whom were conceived through IVF or donors.
The embryos were created for an anonymous couple using in vitro fertilization. The husband was in his early 50s and they used a 34-year-old egg donor.
The embryos were frozen on April 22, 1992.
For nearly three decades, they were stored on tiny straws kept in liquid nitrogen at nearly 200 degrees below zero, in a device that resembles a propane tank.
The embryos were kept in a West Coast fertility lab until 2007, when the couple who created them donated the embryos to the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, in hopes that another couple could use them. The five embryos were shipped to Knoxville overnight in specially equipped tanks, Dr. John Gordon, the Ridgeways’ doctor.
“We never had a certain number of children in mind that we would like to have,” said Philip. “We’ve always thought that we’re going to have as many as God wants us to have, and … when we heard about embryo adoption, we thought that was something we’d like to do.”
Understand embryo donation
The medical name for the process the Ridgeways went through is embryo donation.
When people undergo IVF, they can produce more embryos than they use. Surplus embryos can be cryopreserved for future use, donated for research or training to advance the science of reproductive medicine, or donated to people trying to have children.
As with any other human tissue donation, embryos must meet certain US Food and Drug Administration eligibility guidelines to be donated, including screening for certain infectious diseases.
“Embryo adoption is not a legal ‘adoption’ at all, at least in the sense of a traditional adoption that occurs after birth,” says the National Embryo Donation Center. “However, the term allows all parties to envision the process and ultimate reality of raising a non-genetically related child.”
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says, “The use of the term ‘adoption’ to refer to embryos is inaccurate, misleading and could burden recipients and should be avoided.”
Many colloquially call the donor process “embryo adoption,” but adoption and donation are not one and the same, said Dr. Sigal Klipstein, a Chicago-based fertility specialist and chair of the Ethics Committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.
“Adoption refers to living children,” Klipstein said. “It’s a legal process that creates a parent-child relationship that didn’t exist before.”
Embryo donation, she said, is a medical procedure. “In this way, we take embryos from a couple or an individual and then transfer them to another person to create families.”
The term “adoption” is embroiled in a larger cultural debate, used primarily by people in religious communities with conservative leanings. The National Embryo Donation Center is a private, Christian-run organization. It requires recipients to pass a “family assessment” and states that “couples must be a genetic male and female, married at least 3 years”. The center says it has helped deliver over 1,260 infants from donated embryos.
Klipstein says that using donated embryos can often be cost-effective for people looking for fertility assistance because it reduces the cost of finding and storing donor sperm and eggs. “They don’t get the genetic link to the children,” she said, “but they have a much cheaper reproductive option than even with in vitro fertilization in most cases.”
“We only wanted those who have waited the longest”
For the Ridgeways, building their family has always been part of a larger calling.
“We weren’t looking for the embryos that have been frozen the longest in the world,” said Philip Ridgeway. “We only wanted those who had waited the longest.”
When searching for donors, the Ridgeways specifically asked the donor center for a category called “special consideration,” meaning that for some reason, it was difficult to find recipients for these embryos.
“As we responded, we knew we could trust God to do whatever He sovereignly planned and that her age really didn’t matter. It was just a question of whether or not this was in God’s design,” said Rachel Ridgeway.
To select their embryos, they searched a donor database. It didn’t list how long embryos were frozen, but it did list donor characteristics, such as ethnicity, age, height, weight, genetic and health history, education, occupation, favorite movies and music. Some files have photos of the parents and their children, if any.
The Ridgeways assumed that those listed with previous donor numbers would have had the longest focus and attempted to narrow their selections to those profiles.
Risks of multiples
Southeastern Fertility, working with the National Embryo Donation Center, will thaw the embryos on February 28th. Of the five thawed embryos, two were not viable. Experts say that when frozen embryos are thawed, there is about an 80% survival rate.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the CDC both recommend transferring one embryo at a time because transferring more embryos increases the likelihood of multiple births, potentially increasing the risk for both mother and child. Twin babies are more likely to be born prematurely, develop cerebral palsy, have autism, and result in stillbirths.
Rachel recalls that Gordon gave her a picture of the three embryos and recommended that she only transfer two, telling her, “Multiple births can cause problems in pregnancy.” But she said there was no question that she would have all of them three would transfer.
She recalls getting tears in her eyes and said, “You just showed me a picture of my three children. I must have them all.”
The remaining three embryos were transferred to Rachel on March 2, 29 years and 10 months after they were frozen. Two of the transfers were successful. Studies have shown that 25% to 40% of frozen embryo transfers result in live births.
Like ‘Rip Van Winkle’
Embryos can be frozen pretty much indefinitely, experts said.
“When you’re frozen in almost 200 degrees below zero, I mean, the biological processes essentially slow down to almost nothing. And that’s maybe the difference between a week, a month, a year, a decade, two decades, it doesn’t matter,” Gordon said.
dr Jim Toner, a fertility specialist in Atlanta, compares it to an old story: “It doesn’t seem like a sperm, egg, or embryo stored in liquid nitrogen ever knows time. It’s like this Rip Van Winkle thing wakes up 30 years later and never knew it was asleep.”
The age of the embryo should not affect the health of the child. More important is the age of the woman who donated the egg that got into the embryo.
“If this patient was 25 years old, yes, her embryos will most likely survive,” said Dr. Zaher Merhi, fertility specialist at the Rejuvenating Fertility Center in New York City. “It’s all about the egg and the embryo and when the egg was taken out.”
The Ridgeways say they wanted their kids to be involved throughout the process, so they explained it to them as they went through the steps.
“They have been excited and happy with us every step of the way. They love their siblings, play together and were excited to find out if God had given them two boys, two girls or a brother and sister,” Phillip Ridgeway said.
Lydia was born at 5 pounds, 11 ounces and Timothy was 6 pounds, 7 ounces.
“They were pretty big babies,” said Rachel Ridgeway. “It really is God’s grace because He has just supported us every step of the way.”
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