With one in six Australian couples of reproductive age experiencing difficulties conceiving a child, no wonder potential parents are taking such drastic measures as advertising for donor eggs to complete their family.
Faith Haugh’s introduction to fertility and egg donation began when she was looking in the paper for a second job.
Instead of applying for administrative or secretarial positions, she decided to be an egg donor. It was for a couple who had placed a full-page advertisement pleading for someone to donate their eggs.
The couple had had a child 10 years prior, but it was stillborn, and they had never succeeded in falling pregnant since. Haugh says, ‘It may seem impossible to believe now, but egg donation wasn’t even discussed or publicised through the media back then so, for the couple, it was virtually like looking for a needle in a haystack.’
All women are born with a limited supply of around two million eggs, but this number decreases with age. Associate Professor Peter Illingworth from IVF Australia says, ‘As a woman grows older, her remaining eggs are less likely to be genetically perfect and less likely to create healthy babies.’ Second to which, male infertility is the biggest single factor accounting for why a couple may not be able to conceive naturally, followed by problems such as ovulation disorders, tubal disease, and endometriosis.’
If the infertility is caused by the woman’s eggs, one of the most accepted ways for the couple to become parents is through egg donation and In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatment. IVF encompasses a range of procedures including hormone stimulation and egg collection. Egg donation is also vital for women who have no ovaries or whose eggs don’t respond to hormone stimulation.
An egg donor is a woman who offers her eggs as an altruistic gift to an infertile woman so that she may experience the joy of motherhood.
Egg donors may be known or anonymous, are generally aged between 21 and 38 years, and have usually completed their own family.
It is not unusual to wait between two to five years for an egg donor on hospital waiting lists, so many couples requiring a donor have paid for advertisements in the classifieds section of newspapers. Many advertisements specify the preferred racial origin of the donor, but there is no guarantee that a match will be found.
‘I’ve found that none of the kids look like me at all. In fact, there is no way that you can tell their DNA is different to their mother’s as they all look similar to their mothers,’ says Haugh. She has donated to Greek, Indian, Italian, and Australian couples who, if they had just one wish, wouldn’t be wealthy or famous: they would just be able to hold their own child.
Once a donor is found, the treatment takes between four to eight weeks to complete.
Although it’s illegal in countries such as Australia and England for a donor to receive any monetary payment for her eggs, the recipient would usually pay for any expenses directly incurred for the process. This could include such things as medical costs, travel and parking. Haugh says, ‘When people ask me how much I get paid, I hotly reply that it’s illegal and against my grain to do something for money when it should be from the heart.’
In New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, anyone who donates eggs must go on a register, agreeing to the possibility of being contacted by any children aged 18 and over who were conceived from the donation.
‘I see half of my donor children a few times a year, and this has been totally the decision of the parents. They are enthusiastic about keeping in contact but I always remind them the day before the birth of their child that afterwards they may feel different, protective perhaps, strange, or they may not want to be reminded of their emotional journey. And if they come to this conclusion, I make sure they know that that’s fine with me. People ask how I feel seeing my children a few times a year and I have to remind them that they’re not my children – I just passed on a cell in the hope that it would make a couple’s dreams come true,’ says Haugh.
Altruism in action
The ultimate reward to a donor for giving her eggs is allowing those who can’t produce healthy eggs the chance to carry and deliver a baby. Haugh says, ‘It wasn’t until I started donating to couples who I met up with first that I finally understood what it meant for these people to find a donor. I heard many heartbreaking stories of women who felt they were failing their husbands, and failing themselves as women, because they could not conceive. One woman would pack her bags in the middle of the night and leave her husband every few months because she felt he deserved to find someone else who could make him a father and not be stuck with someone who was “barren and useless”. The husbands also admitted that in private, they broke down after each clinic visit and every negative test as they did not know how to comfort their wives while they were going through such pain.
‘I received a phone call from the labour ward from a husband after their child was born. “It’s got really long legs and so much hair,” he gushed excitedly. “How wonderful, but what did you have – a boy or a girl?” I asked. I heard a muffled conversation and then he returned to the phone, “I have a son!” he said with his voice breaking. He was so over the moon that he had forgotten to see the sex of his child! This is why I do what I do, and encourage others to get educated, whether it be for themselves or for a friend who may be in the same boat one day,’ she says.
When it comes to egg donation, the ethical and medical considerations are just as important as the legal.
- Initiation – the recipient and donor must make appointments with the clinic or hospital for blood tests and counselling. Counselling is mandatory Australia-wide to ensure all parties fully understand what the process entails. It also offers the opportunity to review the legal, social, genetic, and moral implications, and the donor must be prepared to discuss their medical history, physical description, general lifestyle, and social life.
- Sync up – the recipient and donor go on the pill for a month to synchronise both women’s hormones. The donor then takes a nasal spray to suppress ovulation.
- Hormones – after a blood test is taken to ensure the donor’s hormones are properly suppressed, a daily hormone is injected into her lower stomach for 10 days. ‘People ask about the daily injections during a donor cycle and I tell them they are so small you don’t feel them,’ says Haugh.
- Ultrasound check – after 10 days, an ultrasound is conducted to see whether there are enough eggs of good size and quality to retrieve. If there are, all medication ceases and the donor is prepared for the collection of her eggs.
- Egg collection – this marks the beginning of a standard IVF procedure. It is carried out in day surgery, taking around 15 minutes, with many patients returning to normal duties the next day. The donor is given a general anaesthetic, and the eggs are retrieved via a small tube inserted through the vagina – there is no cutting. On the same day, the male partner is required to provide a fresh sample of semen.
- Egg fertilisation – an embryologist carefully places the collected eggs in a special dish with a large number of sperm. The next day, the eggs are examined to see how many have fertilised, which is usually two-thirds.
- Embryo transfer – once an embryo has developed for two to five days, it is transferred into the recipient by a procedure similar to a Pap smear. Associate Professor Illingworth says, ‘To achieve a successful pregnancy, it is normally recommended that only a single embryo be transferred back at a time. If there are any spare embryos, they can be frozen for later use.’
- Testing – sixteen days after the embryo transfer, the recipient takes a pregnancy test.
As with all medical treatments, there is some chance of complications with egg donation and the IVF cycle that follows. For the donor, these include possible side effects from the hormone medication, including minor symptoms such as breast soreness, nausea, lethargy, tenderness and swelling of the abdomen. Another complication can be Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), which occurs in approximately five percent of women whose ovaries become unusually enlarged due to ovarian stimulation. It may consist of severe abdominal pain and fluid retention but can be treated with rest, fluids, and pain-relief medication.
Success rates at clinics all differ so it’s best to check them, but a publication released by the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority in 2007 revealed that each IVF cycle using donated eggs has a 25 to 40 percent chance of success. Associate Professor Illingworth says, ‘The average age of our female patients is 36. Women in this age group can expect success rates of up to 40 percent.’
Despite the chance the egg donation may not always work, Haugh says she would never deny a couple the chance to start a family. ‘I guess I donated because I could,’ she says. ‘I’d been pregnant, married, and divorced before 20 and to be honest, I felt like I wasn’t good at anything. So to discover that I am very fertile and could help so many infertile couples in some way was great. And if you ask me, anyone who craves so badly to get up to a screaming little person at 3am, change dirty nappies, and be sleep deprived for the first two years will get my support every time.’
– this article was kindly supplied my My Child magazine
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