After Infertility: What to Do with Leftover Frozen Embryos When Your Family is Complete

Ya know what? I feel totally ripped off by this whole infertility thing.

Yeah, yeah, the whole, years of treatments and needles and appointments and procedures and buckets upon buckets of tears thing… sure. That was pretty bad. 

But that’s not what I’m talking about now.

I’m talking about aftermath of infertility. The part where you’re supposed to be ~free~ from the battle, once you have your miracle baby (or babies).

WRONG. 

you can't beat infertility. you can survive, but it stays with you forever - one hangry mama quote

I already knew that infertility would be a part of me forever. The two-year journey to get pregnant with our firstborn forever changed me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m more compassionate, more faithful, and more appreciative than I ever could have been before going through countless failed treatments, month after month of disappointment, and pushing my limits further than I knew was possible. 

But that’s not what I’m talking about – I knew that stuff would never go away. 

I’m talking about the lingering questions and emotions raised by infertility, that continue to haunt me – in particular, the issue of what to do with our leftover frozen embryos.

The Aftermath of Infertility: Leftover Frozen Embryos

At this point in my journey, with two miracle babies on my hip, we are pretty confident that our family is complete. 

So that’s great news, right? My definition of infertility is not being able to grow or complete your family, how and when you want. 

So by that definition, we did it! We won – we beat infertility! 

…Not so fast.

See, we still have 8 frozen embryos left. Eight beautiful, viable, maybe-babies. Eight potential brothers and/or sisters to my two kids. 

Eight remaining frozen embryos that are just like the ones that became my two actual babies. Eight embryos that could have easily been selected by the embryologist instead of my two babies now. 

To think about the possibility of my son or daughter never being given the opportunity at life is enough to break me. Truly – if I let myself really think about that, I will crumble; as I’m sure most parents would at the same thought about their children.

One Hangry Mama's two miracle babies from IVF.

photo by: Abby Graves Photography

The only difference is, when you’ve gone through in-vitro fertilization, you get to SEE all these potential outcomes – they aren’t just a fleeting idea in your mind.

Now, I’m a big believer in God’s plan, so I know there’s a reason the embryologist chose the embryos she did for us, and there’s a reason both of my embryo transfers were successful on the first try, and there’s a reason these are the babies I was given. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

But it begs the question… what about the rest of them? What is the plan for those frozen embryos? 

It was something I didn’t even give a second thought to when we were filling out our IVF paperwork. At that point, I could only dream of making enough embryos to have leftovers. All I could envision was not having any healthy embryos, or all of my transfers failing, or miscarrying them. 

If you’d told me then that in four years, I’d be grappling with the potential of having too many babies, I’d have slapped you right across the face.

So it’s not lost on me that in the realm of infertility, this is a good problem to have. I know we’re the lucky ones. I know there are women (and men!) out there praying to have this frozen embryo problem someday. 

So what are the options for frozen embryos after IVF?

When you start the IVF process, the first thing you do is fill out a mountain of paperwork. It’s daunting, to say the least. You have to answer all sorts of heavy questions, like:

  • What do you want to do with the embryos if you get divorced?
  • What if you die? 
  • What if your spouse/partner dies?
  • What if you both die?
  • What if you can’t pay your storage fees or the clinic can’t find you to bill you?

It’s a lot to think through, but in that moment, all you care about is priority #1: getting your take-home baby. So you might talk about it for a few minutes with your partner, but then brush it off and just choose something because you want to get on to the good part (like, the stabby, hormoney, emotional, anxiety-ridden “good” part).

Couple holding frozen embryo photo before Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET).

Most clinics offer three main options for leftover frozen embryos:

1. Dispose of the embryos.

This one is pretty straight-forward. They essentially destroy them, never to be seen again. I’m not sure exactly what that looks like, but I imagine it’s basically just putting them in the trash. 

This one was immediately out of the question for us – we’ve worked too hard (and spent too much money) making these embryos to just toss them. All other beliefs aside, I’m just too frugal for that. 

2. Donate the embryos to science.

This option allows the embryos to be used for testing, trials, and other scientific practices. Each clinic has different practices for the embryos that are donated to science, so it’s important to ask your clinic what their specific protocols are for this option. 

This is the option we selected during our in-vitro paperwork. We thought, hey, at least someone could still benefit from them, right? 

But the more I’ve looked into it, the more doubts I have.

There are some research facilities that accept frozen embryos for things like stem cell research, but they can only accept a limited amount. If I knew my embryos were going to something like this, contributing to real medical advancement, and curing other people’s diseases, I would be all-in for this option. I would rest easy knowing my embryos served a purpose in the world, and benefitted others who needed it. 

But unfortunately, those opportunities are few and far between, due to the highly regulated and restricted nature of this research.

I’ve found that more often than not, embryos that are donated to science are used for things like practice for the embryologists (practicing the thaw process, or the PGS testing process, etc.). While I’m not totally opposed to that – if it makes them better at their job, it could impact success rates for future patients – it also doesn’t exactly give me all the warm fuzzies. 

Couple holding frozen embryo photo before Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET).

3. Donate or adopt out the embryos to another couple.

This is the option that’s heaviest on my heart. I know it’s the “right” choice on paper. But I don’t know if my heart is strong enough for it. 

I’m a member of an incredible infertility support group called Braving Infertility Together. The group hosts in-person and virtual meetings, but the best part, in my opinion, is the secret Facebook group for all its members. It’s a place for people in all stages of infertility to come together and discuss their treatments, their successes, their failures, their fears, their questions – all of it.

(If you’d like to join the group, send a private message to their Facebook page, and they can talk you through the process of joining – they take a lot of caution in protecting members’ privacy.)

Through this wonderful group, I’ve met so many women who’ve all walked (or are currently walking) their own unique journeys to motherhood – including a few who have built their families through embryo adoption, and a few who are desperately waiting to be selected by a family for embryo adoption.

How could I possibly hear all these stories from such strong women, fighting this infertility battle I know so well, and not want to help them?

But then, on the other hand… how could I bear knowing I have biological children out there, but not knowing anything about them? Knowing that my kids have full siblings in the world that they may never even meet? Or perhaps worse, that they could somehow meet, without realizing it was their biological sibling?

Even if the payoff is worth it, the can of worms embryo donation opens up is immense.

It takes a truly special person, with the most generous, giving heart I could imagine, to gift their unused embryos to another family. And I just don’t know if I have it in me, yet.

Frozen embryos are a blessing for many infertile couples going through the IVF process, but what about when your family is complete? What do you do with your frozen embryos?

Alternative Options for Leftover IVF Embryos

Of course, there are a few other, lesser-known possibilities for what to do with leftover embryos after IVF: 

4. Compassionate Embryo Transfer

Some facilities offer a “compassionate transfer,” in which they transfer the leftover embryo(s) into your uterus like any Frozen Embryo Transfer, but during a time of your cycle when you’re highly unlikely to get pregnant. 

5. Keepsake Jewelry

Okay, bear with me on this one, guys. There’s a company in Australia that can create jewelry out of your embryos. And it’s actually really pretty!

I’m going to be totally honest here (because that’s what I do): part of me loves this idea, and part of me hates it. I love the thought that I could keep them with me, and have a sentimental piece of my would-be babies close to my heart. 

But… it’s also pretty weird, right? I can just envision the conversations now:

Acquaintance: “Oh, I just love your necklace! It’s so unique; where’d you get it?”

Me: “Thanks! It’s made of old embryos, so I guess you could say I got it from my ovaries. And my husband’s semen, of course.” 

Acquaintance: {*backs away slowly*}

In addition to be being moderately creepy, it just feels a little selfish compared to some of the other options. 

6. Store Your Embryos Indefinitely

…And we’ve finally landed at my current plan of action. As long as you keep forking over those fat checks each year, you can technically keep your remaining embryos cryogenically frozen for as long as your heart desires. 

(Make sure to review your storage paperwork, because some clinics do have a limit on how long you can store them in their facility.)

At this point, I think this is the only option we’re able to confidently move forward with.

Sure, it’s avoidance, and procrastination, and denial, and several other forms of defense mechanisms, but it’s the best I can do for now. Just like all my infertility woes, I’m doing my best to give it up to God, and trust that it will all become clear to me in due time.

Any of my fellow infertility warriors have advice or guidance? Please share in the comments! 

Frozen embryos are a blessing for many infertile couples going through the IVF process, but what about when your family is complete? What do you do with your frozen embryos? This is the unexpected aftermath of infertility.

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