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 babies born to Rachel and Philip Ridgeway a few weeks ago were frozen as embryos.
Born Oct. 31, Lydia and Timothy Ridgeway were born from what may be the longest frozen embryos to ever result in a live birth, according to the National Embryo Donation Center.
The previous known record holder was Molly Gibson, born in 2020 from an embryo that had been frozen for nearly 27 years. Molly took the file from her sister Emma, who was born from an embryo that had been 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 are frozen. But there is no evidence that an older embryo results in a live birth.
“There’s something mind-blowing about it,” Philip Ridgeway said as he and his wife cradled their newborn babies in their laps at their home outside Portland, Oregon. “I was 5 years old when God gave life to Lydia and Timothy, and he has preserved that life ever since.”
“In a sense, they are our oldest children, even though they are our youngest,” Ridgeway added. The Ridgeways have four other children, ages 8, 6, 3 and almost 2, none of them conceived through IVF or donors.
The embryos were created for an anonymous married couple through 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’ve been stored on tiny straws kept in liquid nitrogen at nearly 200 degrees below zero, in a device that looks a lot like a propane tank.
The embryos were stored at a fertility lab on the West Coast until 2007, when the couple who created them donated the embryos to the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the hope that another couple can use them. The five embryos spent the night in specially equipped tanks in Knoxville, said Dr. James Gordon, the Ridgeways doctor.
“We never had a set number of children in mind that we would like to have,” Philip said. “We always thought we’d have as many as God wants to give us, and…when we heard about embryo adoption, we thought that was something we’d like to do.”
The medical name for the process the Ridgeways went through is embryo donation.
When people undergo IVF, they may produce more embryos than they use. Extra embryos can be cryopreserved for future use, donated to research or training to advance the science of reproductive medicine, or given to people who would like 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 testing for certain infectious diseases.
“Embryo adoption is not legal ‘adoption’ at all, at least in the sense of a traditional adoption that occurs after birth,” states the National Embryo Donation Center. “However, the term allows all parties to conceptualize the process and eventual reality of raising a non-genetically related child.”
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine states, “The application of the term ‘adoption’ to embryos is inaccurate, misleading, and could impose a burden on recipients and should be avoided.”
Many refer to the donor process colloquially as “embryo adoption,” but adoption and donation are not the same thing, said Dr. Sigal Klipstein, a Chicago-based fertility specialist and committee chair. Ethics of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.
“Adoption refers to living children,” Klipstein said. “It is a legal process by which a parent-child relationship is created where it did not exist before.”
Embryo donation, she said, is a medical procedure. “It’s a way in which we take embryos from a couple or an individual and then transfer them to another individual in order to start families.”
The term “adoption” became wrapped up in a wider cultural debate, used primarily by members of faith communities with conservative leanings. The National Embryo Donation Center is a private organization run by Christians. It requires beneficiaries to pass a “family assessment” and states that “couples must be a genetic man and a genetic woman who have been married for at least 3 years”. The center claims to have assisted in the birth of more than 1,260 infants from donated embryos.
Klipstein says using donated embryos can often be cost-effective for people seeking fertility assistance because it reduces the price of finding and storing donor sperm and eggs. “They don’t get the genetic connection to the children,” she said, “but they have a much cheaper reproductive option than even with in vitro fertilization in most cases.”
For the Ridgeways, raising a family has always been part of a larger calling.
“We weren’t looking to get the longest frozen embryos in the world,” said Philip Ridgeway. “We just wanted those who had been waiting the longest.”
When looking for donors, the Ridgeways specifically asked the donation center for a category called “special consideration,” meaning that it had been difficult to find recipients for these embryos, for whatever reason.
“Going there, we knew we could trust God to do whatever he had sovereignly intended and that their age was really no factor. It was just a matter of whether or not that was part of the plans of God,” said Rachel Ridgeway.
To choose their embryos, they went through a database of donors. It does not list the duration of embryo freezing, but it does list donor characteristics such as ethnic origin, age, height, weight, genetic and health background, education, occupation, favorite movies and music. With some files, there are photos of the parents and their children if they have any.
The Ridgeways assumed those listed with past donor numbers had been at the center the longest and tried to narrow their choice to those profiles.
Southeastern Fertility, which partners with the National Embryo Donation Center, thawed the embryos on Feb. 28. Of the five that were thawed, two were not viable. According to experts, the survival rate is around 80% when thawing frozen embryos.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the CDC both recommend transferring one embryo at a time because transferring more increases the likelihood of multiples, which also potentially increases the risk to mother and child. Twin babies are more likely to be born early, develop cerebral palsy, have autism and lead to stillbirth.
Rachel recalls Gordon giving her a picture of the three embryos and recommending that they only transfer two, telling her that “multiples can cause problems during pregnancy.” But she said there was no doubt in her mind that the three of them would transfer.
She remembers having tears in her eyes and saying, “You just showed me a picture of my three children. I must have them all.
The three remaining embryos were transferred to Rachel on March 2, 29 years and 10 months after freezing. Two of the transfers were successful. Studies have shown that 25% to 40% of frozen embryo transfers result in a live birth.
Embryos can be frozen pretty much indefinitely, experts say.
“If you’re frozen at nearly 200 degrees below zero, I mean biological processes basically slow down to next to nothing. And so maybe the difference between being frozen for a week, a month, a year, a decade, two decades, it doesn’t really matter,” Gordon said.
Atlanta fertility specialist Dr. Jim Toner likens it to an old story: “It doesn’t seem like a sperm, egg, or embryo stored in liquid nitrogen knows time. It’s like that Rip Van Winkle thing. He just wakes up 30 years later, and he never knew he was asleep.
The age of the embryo should not affect the health of the child. What matters most is the age of the woman who donated the egg that entered the embryo.
“If this patient was 25, yes, most likely her embryos will survive,” said Dr. Zaher Merhi, fertility expert at the Rejuvenating Fertility Center in New York. “It all depends on the egg and the embryo and when the egg was removed.”
The Ridgeways say they wanted their children to be involved throughout the process, so they explained it to them as they went through the steps.
“They were excited and happy with us every step of the way. They love their siblings, they play together and were eagerly waiting to find out if God had given them two boys, two girls or a brother and a sister,” said Phillip Ridgeway.
Lydia was born at 5 pounds and 11 ounces and Timothy was 6 pounds and 7 ounces.
“They were good sized babies,” Rachel Ridgeway said. “It’s really God’s grace because he just supported us every step of the way.”