LOVELADY, Texas (SBTC) -- While most American families were planning for Thanksgiving, Mitchell and Leslee Kleckley had something else on their minds.
The couple was in a Houston hospital for the birth of their son, Drew. No doubt hundreds of other babies were born in the state that day, but perhaps none had such an extraordinary journey as did little Drew.
Unable to bear children, the couple turned to a relatively unknown procedure known as "embryo adoption" in an attempt to have a child. They were able to experience pregnancy—with all its ups and downs—even though the baby Leslee was carrying was genetically unrelated to her.
Yet when little Drew Kleckley was born prematurely at 6:39 p.m. on Nov. 26, he was completely and wholly their son. And while the couple initially declined to be public about their struggles, they said they decided to share their story "not because we want publicity or attention because we know this is not about us. It's all about God and his glory."
Wrestling with infertility
After two years of marriage, Mitchell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lovelady, and his wife Leslee decided in July 2011 to start their family. Yet after nearly a year of trying and being unsuccessful, the couple consulted doctors, who determined that a medical issue left Mitchell unable to father a child. They sought an array of treatments for the matter; none of which helped.
"It seems like for the whole three years we struggled with infertility we felt like we were repeatedly being gut-punched as test results disappointed us again and again, but all of that was wiped away when I was able to hold my son for the first time," Mitchell said.
While the couple is again on social media to tell others what God is doing in their lives, there was a time when Leslee went "off the grid," even deleting the Facebook app from her phone. She said it seemed like every other day there was posted an ultrasound of someone's unborn child or announcement that someone was expecting.
"I wanted so bad to be happy for these people, but I didn't understand why that wasn't happening to me. I realized these feelings could make me bitter, and I knew I had to get rid of this," she said.
While the Kleckleys were not candidates for traditional non-donor in vitro fertilization, they began exploring alternatives. A friend who was familiar with their situation shared an article with them about "embryo adoption."
Mitchell said initially the ethics of embryo donor programs gave him pause.
Yet as he explored it, it began to make sense to him given the couple's confidence that life begins at conception and that these were "lives that were just frozen indefinitely." He also learned there are between 400,000 and 500,000 living human embryos currently frozen in fertility clinics around the U.S.
The source of the frozen embryos is infertile couples who opt for in vitro fertilization and have leftover embryos–by design or not–once they've completed all their IVF cycles.
For these families, the choices can be difficult and morally problematic: allow the embryos to thaw, and they will die; leave them in an unending state of cryopreservation; give them to science for research, and they will be killed; or preferably, allow them to be donated to a couple willing for one or more of the embryos to be implanted in the woman's uterus.
Adopting children before they are born
Given that the Kleckleys had already opened their hearts to adoption and "embryo adoption" would allow Leslee to experience pregnancy, Mitchell said they were comfortable, in effect, "adopting children before they were born."
"The Bible teaches that life begins at conception. Each of these embryos is a human life frozen indefinitely unless someone adopts them and gives them a chance at life," he said.
Mitchell said they were able to select the embryos they wanted to "adopt" and to see pictures of the embryos' already-born siblings. They selected three embryos, two of which were implanted in mid-May.
Some embryos don't survive the thawing process; others do not survive after implantation. In fact, during the eighth week of gestation doctors discovered one of the Kleckley's babies had died.
Leslee said while it was devastating news to receive, she was overwhelmed with gratitude that the other child appeared healthy and was on track developmentally. "God comforted me in that time," she recalled.
The Sunday following the loss of their child, Leslee said the entire congregation came to the front of the church and surrounded them, praying over them.
"Our church family has been walking with us nearly every step of this journey," Mitchell said. "Every high and low we've had an opportunity to share with them."
Initially the couple was not inclined to share with others what they were going through. Yet after over a year of struggling with infertility and the medical procedures they were hoping would address the issue, they began to tell others.
"It was at that point," Mitchell recounted, "that I made a decision that I was going to use this opportunity—good or bad—to magnify God's name. He has been so good to us. We don't deserve the grace he has shown us in all of this."
Leslee agreed, saying initially she was hesitant to share with others all they were going through, but looking back she says the support from the church was critical.
Pink or blue?
As their pregnancy progressed, Mitchell and Leslee chose a novel way to reveal their unborn child's gender.
On an office visit, they asked their physician to write the baby's sex on a small piece of paper and seal it in an envelope, which they took to a local baker. They asked the baker to color the batter inside of the cake either pink or blue, depending on what the doctor indicated.
The expectant couple learned they were having a boy when, with church members watching, the cake was cut revealing a baby blue-colored band.
On Nov. 22, Leslee went into labor. While doctors were able to ease the contractions, four days later Drew was born—2 lbs. 15 oz. and 15.6 inches long–nine weeks early.
While Drew is doing well, his premature birth means he'll remain hospitalized until sometime early in 2015.
An adoption of a different kind
"It has definitely been an emotional roller coaster that has taken its toll on us physically as well," Mitchell said, adding, "It has made our faith a whole lot stronger."
"Our little guy has a lot of hurdles to get through still. But God is faithful, and we are going to continue leaning on him," Mitchell said, noting he and his wife are now committed advocates for adoption.
Mitchell said they view this as a kind of picture of what God did for us, adopting us into his family: "We were loved by God; we were chosen by God. He was so gracious to us to give us a family."
Interestingly what is called "embryo adoption" is not adoption at all in legal terms because adoption involves a child who is already born. In the state's eyes, embryo adoption is basically a transfer of property—very special property. The embryo's genetic parents relinquish any parental rights once they agree to donate the embryos leftover from IVF.
Under Texas law the Kleckleys are legally Drew's parents because Leslee gave birth to him. Their relationship with him is just as binding as a legal adoption.
Letters to my son
Mitchell said on the day the embryos were placed in Leslee's womb he wrote his first letter to his pre-born children. And he's continued every day since. The couple plans to put the letters in book form for Drew.
Mitchell signs every letter with a reminder to Drew that he was chosen, that he is loved, that he was prayed for every day and that he is a gift from God.
-- Reprinted with permission from the online Southern Baptist Texan, the official newspaper of the Southern Baptist Texas Convention (SBTC).