Niki Schaefer

Schaefer 

When Niki Schaefer learned she couldn’t conceive children naturally about 10 years ago, she knew fertility treatments were her next best bet. The Moreland Hills resident had always wanted to experience pregnancy, thus she went through several cycles of treatments to conceive her two children, Noah, 8, and Lane, 6. 

Schaefer’s children are biologically hers and her husband Brian’s, but some who were pursuing a similar story for their family may no longer have that opportunity. A storage tank malfunction discovered March 4 at University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center fertility clinic in Beachwood compromised the viability of an estimated 4,000 eggs and embryos. 

In response, Schaefer knew there was something she could do: donate her extra embryos frozen during her second pregnancy to someone who may have that same wish of being pregnant. 

“It feels good to give back to a community that really is a part of who we are,” said Schaefer, a member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood. “I think we define ourselves by having gone through that experience of infertility and really empathize with that whole world.”

She and Brian aren’t the only ones. The UH situation has gotten the attention of at least one North Texas couple willing to donate embryos. It’s also raised questions regarding how one can have Jewish children when the traditional method fails.

Loss at UH

Schaefer, 37, got married in 2007 and started trying to have a baby soon after. She was quickly diagnosed with Polycystic ovary syndrome that prevented her from ovulating. She underwent fertility treatments at Cleveland Clinic to have her two children. 

She was initially hesitant about donating her extra embryos, which were frozen upon her second pregnancy in case they were needed. Biologically, the embryos could produce children that would be the siblings of her own, which is “hard to wrap your mind around,” she said. 

However, when she heard about the incident at UH, which was caused by unexpected temperature fluctuation in a freezer housing embryos and eggs and is still being investigated, her decision was made. Not only is Schaefer committed to the infertility community – she volunteers and chairs events with UH’s Partnership for Families, a charity that funds fertility treatments for those who can’t afford them – but she holds a deep fondness for her fertility doctor,

Dr. James Goldfarb, who previously worked at Cleveland Clinic and now is division chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at UH.

Moreover, she’s experienced firsthand the disappointment that accompanies a fertility treatment not working. She’s also familiar with the associated expense, as each cycle of in-vitro fertilization costs an estimated $12,000, even if it doesn’t result in pregnancy, in addition to other medical expenses. 

“It’s a common misconception about IVF, that when you do it, you get pregnant,” she said. “There are many times where it really doesn’t work.”

Schaefer adds that while many families affected by the freezer malfunction likely want to try again with their own new embryos or eggs, many cancer treatments, as well as other medical treatments, can cause one to become infertile. Thus, those patients freeze eggs or embryos prior to such treatments, and if they are lost, there isn’t a second chance. 

“For those people, trying again isn’t an option, so I would hope donated eggs or embryos could come in handy for them,” she said, adding, however, that where her embryos go is ultimately up to the hospital. 

Need for funds, embryos

A potential embryo-donating couple from North Texas has an additional motive: to give another family children who are born Jewish. The Orthodox couple in their mid-30s had two healthy children via IVF and now have several extra embryos they’d like to go to a Northeast Ohio Jewish family affected by the freezer malfunction.

“It’s a harrowing experience, and I feel very bad for anyone that has gone through it,” the donor, who wished to remain anonymous, said of infertility. “We are in a position to help.” 

Whether a child is born Jewish can become a complicated matter when dealing with sperm, egg and embryo donors, and surrogacy. While some on the less devout side, like Schaefer, feel as though children take on the religion of their chosen parents, regardless of biology, more religious Jewish families don’t agree. For example, the North Texas donor said some interpretations of halachah, or Jewish law, say even having a non-Jewish surrogate carry a baby of Jewish ethnicity deems the baby non-Jewish. Thus, like many children who are adopted, that child would have to convert. 

“If you are Jewish, your husband is Jewish, my embryo is Jewish, then you’ve got absolutely nothing to worry about,” he said of his and his wife’s embryos. 

The donors initially reached out to the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation, which has a fund to provide financial support for families to undergo fertility treatments, before the UH incident. The donors connected with Mona Klein Allen, the foundation’s director of scholarships and programs. 

Allen said Dallas JCF’s fertility treatment fund is one of several around the country that provides such support and has awarded $70,000 in grants to 23 couples, and at least 15 babies have been born. Such funds tend to support Orthodox couples only, as having large families is a norm in those communities and not being able to have Jewish children is seen as a heavy burden. While adoption is an option, securing an adoption of Jewish baby is difficult and some religious couples worry about how adopted non-Jewish children (who theoretically would convert) might be accepted in the community. 

However, when the donor family inquired about donating their extra embryos, Allen said she initially wasn’t sure what to do. 

“We’ve never had an ability to give embryos away,” Allen said. “As a foundation, we deal with giving monetary grants, but definitely understand the value here.”  

However, Allen is a former Northeast Ohio resident, and upon learning of the incident at UH, she realized the potential need. She and the donors are now working to find a potential family match. 

While details remain to be worked out for both Schaefer and the Texas donors, as the process for donating embryos is strenuous, they agree embryos will give hope to a family dealing with infertility – a crisis they both know well. While the Texas donors want any potential children to be raised in a Jewish family, Schaefer said she’s happy with anywhere her embryos would go if they help another couple of any ethnicity or religion experience pregnancy. 

“I always thought that if I wasn’t able to make children of my own, then I wanted to experience pregnancy so much I probably would have used donated embryos,” she said. “But I didn’t have to go there because I was able to use my own.”  

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