TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. When President Bush vetoed a bill June 20 that would have provided federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Mike and Nicole Bell of Traverse City, Mich., were among those Americans rejoicing.
The Bells have two children, 17-month-old twins Michael and Paige, born via a relatively new method called embryo adoption. Michael and Paige once were so-called leftover embryos, stored frozen in a lab -- the same type of embryos many scientists want to use for research. They very well could still be there, if not for Mike and Nicole.
"They were orphans in a different sense of the word," Nicole, 35, told Baptist Press. "Embryos are not just cells. They're little people.
"We are opposed to embryonic stem cell research but we are in favor of other types of stem cell research -- adult stem cells, [umbilical] cord blood stem cells. I wish the general public would understand that more, and that's part of why we are involved in this, trying to get the word out."
The Bells adopted Michael and Paige as embryos through the National Embryo Donation Center (embryodonation.org), a Knoxville, Tenn.-based organization that works to promote both embryo donation and adoption. The nonprofit center stores embryos donated from couples who have undergone In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and then matches those same embryos with infertile couples. Some adoptions are open; others are anonymous.
"They didn't ask to be created in this manner, but they do ask for the chance to be born and to experience life as we know it," Nicole said. "They deserve that. For the parents who create them, it's an honorable choice for them to be able to see to fruition the lives that they were a part of creating. The donor parents benefit by knowing the children can have life, and we as a family benefit by having children. But the babies obviously benefit the most."
Michael and Paige actually have an older sister, 5-year-old Leah, who came to the Bells as an infant through a traditional adoption. Married in 1994, the Bells tried to give birth the natural way off and on for approximately seven years, but even with the assistance of fertility treatments had no success. Years of emotional angst were intensified when they finally did conceive once, only to discover it was an ectopic pregnancy.
They began exploring other options, and knew about embryo adoption, but they wanted to avoid anything medically related and opted instead for traditional adoption. Leah's biological parents were a young unmarried couple.
Adoption was not a difficult decision for the Bells.
"My husband actually was adopted as an infant as well," Nicole said. "I'm the only one in my [immediate] family who was not."
Just before Leah turned 2, the Bells began examining various ways they could add to their family -- either through domestic adoption, international adoption or embryo adoption. They kept "being drawn back" to embryo adoption, Nicole said. It would have an added bonus, allowing her to experience a pregnancy.
The embryo adoption process moved fast. The Bells contacted the National Embryo Donation Center in August 2004, filled out the paperwork and then had their adoption home study, all within a few months. The most difficult decision along the way, Nicole said, was choosing which of approximately 12 groups of embryos they would choose. All were donated anonymously.
"That's probably one of the hardest decisions we've had to make in our lives, because you know that you can't give birth to all of them, but yet you know that the ones you pick are going to have the chance," she said. "You hope and pray that somebody's going to pick [the other ones], but in the meantime they're still sitting there, waiting."
The group they chose included eight embryos that had been frozen since November 2002. Three of them were transferred into Nicole in May 2005, and, defying the odds, all three implanted in the womb. However, one of them was lost early on, before the fetuses had even developed a heartbeat. But from there on out, the pregnancy went smoothly.
"We were a little afraid of getting too excited [about the pregnancy]," Nicole said, referencing the earlier ectopic pregnancy. "Also, there's always the hurdle with twins, because it's a high-risk pregnancy. You're always waiting to get past certain dates to know that they would be viable if something were to happen and they were born [premature]."
But there were no complications, and Michael and Paige were born Jan. 13, 2006, at 37 weeks.
"Hearing them cry for the first time, my husband and I both cried," Nicole said. "It was the most emotional experience, and the greatest day. And they were both healthy and they didn't have any medical complications. They didn't need any oxygen or feeding tubes -- nothing."
An embryo adoption pregnancy, obviously, created for some unique moments, since Nicole gave birth to someone else's biological children. But from the beginning she and her husband have been open about the situation with friends and family members, and remain open about the unique way their twins came into the world.
The little boy, Michael, has strawberry blond hair something that Mike and Nicole don't have. Just recently, when Nicole was visiting her parents, a neighbor asked about the little boy's hair.
"I told her they were an embryo adoption, and she knew what that meant," Nicole said. "Most people respond very positively. I've never really had a negative response. It's always been positive especially when people are seeing the kids there."
The Bells hope to encourage couples with excess embryos to donate those embryos for adoption, and for couples desiring for children to adopt them.
"We're passionate about our little ones, and we feel like this is a way that God can use us even if we just save a couple of lives," Nicole said.