Destroy or donate: It’s the stark choice of what to do with leftover IVF embryos. Picture: Thinkstock
Destroy or donate: It’s the stark choice of what to do with leftover IVF embryos. Picture: Thinkstock

Snowbabies: Could you give your child to strangers?

THEY'RE called "snowbabies": the frozen IVF embryos "spare"and "leftover" in storage by parents whose IVF journey has ended.

Each tiny embryo represents a potential life, suspended, effectively, in time.

For its parents, each can represent a stark dilemma: Destroy. Or donate.

And for childless people almost out of options, they can represent a last chance of achieving the dream of parenthood.

In Australia, an estimated hundreds of thousands of snowbabies exist.

But what to do with them is an ethical and emotional minefield as journalist Ally Langdon reveals on 60 Minutes on Sunday night.

Examining what happens when embryo donation goes right, and how it can also go wrong, Langdon looks at the emotional debate raised by the question: "Could you give your babies away to a complete stranger?"

Cathie Thomas and baby Hannah and Koby Argall with three-month old William. Picture: Channel 9 / 60 Minutes
Cathie Thomas and baby Hannah and Koby Argall with three-month old William. Picture: Channel 9 / 60 Minutes

One family who could was Koby and David Argall.

Four years ago, the pair who had been down a successful IVF path of their own, decided to donate their remaining embryos "to an amazing couple who at the time were complete strangers to us".

The embryo recipients, Cathie and Paul Thomas, are "parents of two gorgeously perfect kids born from our donation", Koby said in a Facebook post.

"I can't imagine (Cathie and Paul's children) James and Hannah not being here," Koby tells Langdon.

She hopes by sharing their story, she and David can "help others out there who have leftover embryos in making a decision to donate instead of just discarding their precious little snowbabies."

"The thought of them being stuck as an embryo indefinitely frozen in time, it saddens me, when there's so many people out there who, like us, would love to have them as part of their family.

“Easily the best decision I’ve ever made”: IVF embryo donors David and Koby Argall. Picture: Channel 9/60 Minutes
“Easily the best decision I’ve ever made”: IVF embryo donors David and Koby Argall. Picture: Channel 9/60 Minutes

"There are so many people across Australia with empty arms and hearts that would do anything to become parents. To anyone with embryos on ice please consider how amazing it is to donate. It is easily the best decision I've ever made."

Embryo donation levels are low in Australia.

For every 20 couples hoping for embryos in Australia, only one will actually receive them, according to the Embryo Donation Network.

Nobody knows that better than Cathie and Paul, who five years ago, after two years of trying for a baby, discovered they were infertile.

Refusing to accept a future without children, they advertised for an embryo donor.

Four months later they were contacted by Koby and David.

The two women "connected" almost immediately, agreeing to meet. The two couples are now the closest of friends.

Less than ten minutes after their first face-to-face meeting, Cathie received the text of a lifetime saying "Do you want to be our embryo's mummy and daddy?" Cathie reveals,

"And yeah it was the best text message ever to receive. I think we cried the whole way home.

"We are hoping that by sharing our story we might help other childless people to achieve the family they long for and help people with embryos remaining to learn about an option that gives their snowbabies a chance at life."

“Do you want to be our embryo’s mummy and daddy?” the text message said: Cathie Thomas with baby Hannah. Picture: Channel 9
“Do you want to be our embryo’s mummy and daddy?” the text message said: Cathie Thomas with baby Hannah. Picture: Channel 9

While embryo donation can be the most generous gift of all, it also comes with risks, and tough questions. The majority of couples don't proceed with donation because it's such a hard decision to make.

But the wrestle over the decision - and implications - of deciding whether to destroy or donate is as big as it is emotional.

Melinda and Dhia Watson. Struggling with what to do with their IVF embryos. Picture: Channel 9
Melinda and Dhia Watson. Struggling with what to do with their IVF embryos. Picture: Channel 9

"I think I felt numb, being forced into a decision," says Melinda Watson, after receiving a letter from their fertility clinic reminding them they don't keep embryos beyond ten years.

"It's sort of like giving the most important thing you have to a complete stranger," says Dhia Watson as he and wife Melinda struggle to decide, and make a leap of faith in choosing a family.

"One of my fears is, if the family that's going to raise one of these kids is not going to raise them properly, or they're going to be an abusive family, you can't really tell just by someone filling an application or sitting an interview if they're going to be a good parent or a bad parent," says Dhia.

For Koby in the end, it was a clear choice.

"They could have been our kids so I can't then just go from going they could be our kids one day to just defrosting them," she says.

60 Minutes airs Sunday at 8.30pm on Channel 9

Beautiful IVF babes Wiiliam and Hannah. Picture: Channel 9
Beautiful IVF babes Wiiliam and Hannah. Picture: Channel 9

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