'Mums' fly for baby help
More and more women desperate to have babies are heading overseas to find egg donors as frustration grows at restrictive medical laws and practices in New Zealand.
In the past year about 30 couples have travelled to the San Diego Fertility Centre in the United States for egg donation, and more than 70 per cent of the women are now pregnant – almost double the success rate at home. Others have travelled to countries such as Spain and Argentina.
The women and their doctors say "fertility tourism" is the only choice for some couples, because potential New Zealand donors are not encouraged to offer their eggs.
One sticking point is a ban on payments to donors but reports, by advisory committees on egg donors, to Health Minister Tony Ryall are yet to consider payment.
Donors are advised by fertility clinics to wait until they have had their own families before they donate, even though using eggs from older women dramatically lowers the chances of the recipient falling pregnant. The law states donors have to be at least 20.
"It is a bigger deal than donating sperm," said Mary Birdsall, medical director of Fertility Associates in Auckland. "We don't want to take eggs until women are older and have completed their own families, just in case."
Risks of egg donation include ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, bleeding or, more rarely, infection at the time of egg collection, which can result in infertility – a reason younger women are cautious about donating.
In the US however, women in their early 20s can earn up to US$10,000 for their eggs. "Lots of young women are putting themselves through university by donating eggs," Birdsall said. "The donor websites feel a little like a Miss America pageant."
Most donations in New Zealand are made by a family member or friend, with the wider donor pool being very small.
Wellington woman Angela* said egg donations here were complicated because of the process determined by clinics and the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (Ecart).
"I had three donors. Every time we got a new egg donor we had to go through Ecart and counselling, and HIV testing and so on. It can take over a year. Your whole life is on hold during that time."
She said it took just four months from deciding to use a clinic in San Diego to travelling there and coming home pregnant. She now has a 15-month-old daughter.
Birdsell said there were downsides, including cost – around $53,000 – and children resulting from overseas egg donors were not guaranteed the chance to meet their biological mother. Here, under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act, donor information had to be provided to Births, Deaths and Marriages.
Fertility counsellor Joi Ellis said it was important to consider how the child might feel about that lack of connection. Parents also needed to consider what it would be like to raise a child when they didn't know their full genetic history. "It's a significant loss for a woman to give up the idea that those children will have arisen from the use of her eggs. There is usually considerable grief attached to that."
By the time Angela* was 42, she'd been through 15 cycles of IVF, three egg donors, two operations, one miscarriage and nine years of hell. "My husband and I put our whole world on hold to have a baby. I was eating healthily, exercising, going to the naturopath, to acupuncture – the lot. I ended up giving up work so I could concentrate on IVF full time. And none of it worked."
Angela, who didn't want to use her real name, and her husband, were on the verge of giving up when a doctor suggested they try the San Diego Fertility Centre. "It took me about a year to come to terms with using a donor. It hit me hard that I couldn't have my own biological child. But by then we'd already been through it three times so going there wasn't so different." Angela said they contacted the centre through Fertility Associates in New Zealand, then set about picking a donor.
"For me it was important the donor was blonde because I'm blonde. I didn't want it to be so obvious that it wasn't my biological child," she said. "It was also important she was healthy, and how successful her other donations had been." Donors in the US are allowed to give eggs up to 10 times. Angela's donor had given eight times before and had eight successful pregnancies. Angela said "it just felt right" when she found the woman, a psychology student who wanted to be a mum herself one day.
"We are so grateful. It's such a special gift. We just wish there were more donors to help people like us." Whether her child will want to meet the donor is something they will work though later.
"We've been very open about our journey, we plan to tell her all about it." And it seems she could be having that conversation more than once. After a trip to San Diego earlier this year, Angela, now 45, is pregnant again, maybe even with twins.
*All names changed
Sunday Star Times