Embryo Donation vs Traditional Adoption – Similar, Yet Vastly Different

June 29, 2023

Embryo donation and traditional adoption are two distinct processes with unique considerations for the offspring, parents, and the individuals involved. Let’s walk through each aspect:


Embryo Donation: In embryo donation, the offspring is conceived through a frozen embryo transfer using donated embryos.  Embryos are donated via contract law. Offspring carry the genetics of the egg/sperm contributors, but will be carried by the parent or gestational carrier, and the “parent” is legally solely the embryo owner (recipient).

Traditional Adoption: In traditional adoption, the child is genetically related to the birth parents, and is carried to term by the birth mother, who gives the child to adoptive parents via adoption court proceedings after a child is born.


Perception of Parentage: In both scenarios, the child’s parents are the ones who raise and care for them. Donor-conceived children have only “known” one family, in that, for those who do not use a gestational carrier, they have only heard the voices and smelled the smells of their parents. In traditional adoption, the child may navigate a more complex start, as their in utero environment was with different sounds/smells.

Genetic Connection: In both scenarios again, the child does not have their parents’ genetics, and that can become apparent to them in a lot of ways, including appearance, life proclivities, and health. Sharing a child’s origin story early and often can help them understand genetic differences with their family.  The information also provides a means to explore their own genetics for health and identity reasons.

Identity Formation: Both donor-conceived children and traditionally adopted children may have questions and thoughts about their origins and may go through a process of identity formation that involves understanding their unique family circumstances.

Disclosure and Communication: In both cases, parents play a vital role in creating an open and supportive environment where children can explore their origins and ask questions. Open and honest communication about their background helps children develop a sense of self and a better understanding of their family dynamics.

Access to Information: Direct to Consumer Genetic Testing (eg. 23&Me) allows all people to learn their genetic ties in less than two weeks by a simple swab. With the advent of this technology, offspring can learn to whom they’re related, and their risks for certain conditions, but it’s never as accurate or comprehensive as direct information from the donor/birth family.  Donor-conceived children may have access to more detailed genetic and medical information about their biological heritage at the time of embryo creation, as it can be shared by the embryo donors or made available through medical records. Traditionally adopted children may have limited or no access to information about their biological family, depending on the circumstances.

Timing of Disclosure: In many cases, traditional adoption involves a deliberate and planned disclosure of the adoption to the child, often from a young age. In the case of donor-conceived children, the timing of disclosure may vary, but it ideally occurs in early childhood or from birth, as parents explain the unique way they were conceived. Children can absorb their unique family origin with age-appropriate language before they are two years old. By sharing early, a child can establish their true and special identity, and ask questions as they age.

Overall, both donor-conceived and traditionally adopted children may go through a process of understanding and coming to terms with their unique circumstances. The level of impact on developmental confidence can vary depending on individual factors, such as the child’s temperament, the quality of communication and support from parents, the presence of openness and honesty in discussing origins, and the availability of information about genetic heritage. Supportive and open environments that foster open communication and address the child’s questions and concerns are crucial in promoting positive identity development for both donor-conceived and traditionally adopted children.


Embryo Donation: The parents who receive the donated embryo, often referred to as the “receiving parents,” will experience the pregnancy and childbirth. They become the legal parents of the child upon signing the embryo donation agreement, and will be the only parent(s) listed on the birth certificate as the child will often develop in utero of a receiving parent.

Traditional Adoption: The adoptive parents undergo legal proceedings to become the child’s legal parents.

Embryo Donors vs. Birth Mothers:

In embryo donation, the individuals who donated the embryos are usually known as “embryo donors.” They may or may not have a genetic connection to the child (for example, they may have used donated gametes themselves!) but often have children who are full biological siblings of the embryos. They have completed their family and have made a conscious decision to donate their embryos for someone else to have a child.

Birth mothers are individuals who have carried the child during pregnancy but have chosen adoption as an alternative to parenting. They may have various reasons for placing their child for adoption.

Parentage Considerations:

In embryo donation, all parental rights and responsibilities of any child born of the embryos are typically transferred when the embryo donation legal agreement is signed, before a pregnancy occurs. This means that the receiving parents become the legal parents of any child born from the donated embryos once the agreement is finalized, even though the child is not genetically related to them.

In traditional adoption, the birth mother maintains all parental rights until childbirth. After the child is born, she may have a specified period, often called a “revocation period,” during which she can reconsider her decision to place the child for adoption. The length of this period varies by jurisdiction, but it is typically a few days to several weeks. If the birth mother changes her mind during this period, she may choose to keep the baby, and the adoption process would be halted.

The percentage of birth mothers who change their mind and decide to keep the baby after childbirth, often referred to as adoption disruptions or disruptions, varies widely depending on multiple factors. The actual percentage can be challenging to determine due to various reasons, such as the lack of comprehensive data or differing reporting methods across jurisdictions. It is recommended to consult adoption agencies or professionals with access to more specific and localized statistics for accurate information.

Legal Considerations:

Embryo Donation: In some cases, legal agreements are established between the embryo donors and the receiving parents directly, referred to as a “directed donation,” outlining the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved.  Directed donations often do, but do not require, sharing of contact information if matching is managed through an agency.  As a reminder, parentage is determined through the legal contract and is considered property law with a significant family law component.  Donations managed by fertility clinics often use consent forms to transfer ownership from the donor to the clinic, then to the recipient.

Traditional Adoption: Traditional adoption involves legal procedures to establish the adoptive parents as the child’s legal parents, often including the termination of the birth parents’ legal rights. Adoption laws differ across jurisdictions, and the process can involve court hearings, home studies, and background checks.

Visitation and Contact:

Embryo Donation: The level of contact between receiving parents and embryo donors should be negotiated and agreed during the matching process to ensure that both families are aligned with the desired engagement level. This may range from limited to no contact to occasional updates until the children decide they’d like to know one another, or a more engaged relationship from an early age depending on the preferences of both parties.

The level of engagement between the receiving parents and the embryo donors, including in person contact, can be determined by mutual agreement, and does not involve state or federal law. Engagement level is based on the preferences of all parties involved and may range from closed (no contact) to high engagement open arrangements. Parties should discuss and document their expectations and desires regarding contact and communication to maintain clarity and understanding, while recognizing that a lot changes after a baby is born, and both donors and recipients may engage more or less based on their own life circumstances. Interaction agreements in embryo donation are NOT legally binding in the same way as in traditional adoption.

Traditional Adoption: The level of contact and visitation between adoptive parents and birth parents varies based on the preferences of all parties involved. It can range from no contact to ongoing communication and visits, depending on the type of adoption and the agreements made.

Traditional adoption typically involves legal provisions for contact between the adoptive parents, the adopted child, and the birth parents. These arrangements can be legally binding and are often outlined in the adoption agreement or court order. The specifics can vary widely, ranging from limited or supervised visits to more open and ongoing contact, depending on the preferences and agreements made between the parties involved.

Considerations differ depending on specific circumstances, legal regulations, and agreements made by the individuals involved in both embryo donation and traditional adoption. Consulting with legal professionals experienced in embryo donation, reproductive technologies, and traditional adoption can provide more specific information and guidance tailored to individual situations.