With a shortage of donors in the UK, foreign fertility clinics are proving big business for British women trying to get pregnant. However, says Claire Higney, success isn’t guaranteed
I’ll never forget turning to my husband Andy and saying, ‘If we can’t have children, I’ll never put my body through fertility treatment.’ I was 30 and couldn’t understand that desperation to have a baby I’d seen in some women. Of course, I was speaking with the arrogance of someone who had never faced infertility. Those words would come back to haunt me.
Fast forward ten years, and I was sitting on a hotel bed in Spain with tears rolling down my face because I’d just been told by my Spanish fertility clinic that our two embryos ‘weren’t doing well’. It was likely that they’d have to cancel the cycle before I had what’s known as ‘the transfer’ to my womb. ‘We’ll only charge half the fee, though,’ the nurse said, as if that would suddenly make everything OK. I felt devastated. We’d decided to travel to Spain for egg donation after four miscarriages and two failed IVF attempts. By this point I understood the despair that women feel when they can’t have children.
Egg donation was our last shot. I’d given up a job I loved on a national newspaper to focus on having a baby and we’d found another £10,000 – on top of more than £30,000 we’d already spent on investigations and treatment – to pay for it. Meanwhile, my friends were reproducing for England and I felt almost embarrassed that my body couldn’t do what it was meant to. While they were all cutting back on luxuries to afford nursery fees, I consoled myself with handbags: a Marc Jacobs tote here, a Mulberry clutch there.
I’d just started ticking the ‘age: 40 to 42’ box on the medical forms, and according to figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, I now had just a 12.7 per cent chance of success using my own eggs. A donor egg carries an average 33.4 per cent success rate (I chose to ignore the fact that for my age group it was nearer 20 per cent).
We’d have preferred to find an egg donor in the UK, but since the government removed anonymity from donors in 2005 there has been a shortage. And according to the latest figures, the average waiting time for donor eggs is two and a half years. Waiting times are much shorter in Spain, which tends to use younger donors and anonymity is guaranteed. It’s estimated that thousands of British women choose to go abroad for this reason every year, with Spain, Russia and the US being the most popular destinations.
What kind of donor had they given me? Was she a heavy drinker or smoker? Could she have been over 35?’ After doing some research online, we opted for a clinic in Spain that promised 18- to 35-year-old donors who had been screened for genetic conditions and sexually transmitted diseases. We gave the clinic a photo of Andy and me so that they could try to find a donor who matched our characteristics. The staff spoke English and informed me I’d be able to have the preparatory hormone treatment in London and would need to go to Spain only for the embryo transfer. I was otherwise fit and healthy and Andy had no fertility issues, so surely our chances were good if we used the egg of a super-fertile 20-something? What’s more, the clinic said it had an impressive 55 per cent pregnancy rate with embryo transfer.
Andy and I had discussed all the issues: would it be weird to have someone else’s DNA inside me? How would I feel about giving birth to another woman’s child? But friends reminded me that, unlike surrogacy, I’d get to carry the baby and it would share my blood supply, plus biologically it would be 50 per cent Andy’s genes. Also, my name would be on the birth certificate as the mother.
We had the obligatory tests for HIV and hepatitis; Andy flew out to Spain to have a sperm sample frozen, and I was given an injection to shut down my menstrual cycle and began taking progesterone to prepare my womb lining, aspirin and heparin injections to thin my blood and improve the chances of implantation, plus steroids to help reduce risk of miscarriage.
A few weeks later, the donor was ready for egg retrieval. Then the clinic called to say fertilisation had gone well and we had nine good embryos. We sped off to the airport with a good-luck stork charm from my sister-in-law and €500 from my parents so I didn’t ‘have to worry about finding a cashpoint’.
When we arrived in Spain the clinic rang to say that the embryos were doing so well that they could go to the next stage and grow them a further two days to day five, which would give us a better chance of success. We headed off to a tapas bar that night feeling excited. The clinic had said they would contact us the next morning to tell us when to come in for the transfer, but by lunchtime there was no news. When I rang them all I got was voicemail. Then at 6pm I finally got a call from one of the nurses. ‘I’m sorry, Claire, but your embryos aren’t doing well,’ she said. ‘There are two left and they’re not looking good. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to continue with the cycle. This is very unusual.’
So why was it happening to me? The heartache was so overwhelming it felt like physical pain – and I was angry, too. My own eggs had fared far better during IVF – at least I’d produced good-quality embryos that could be transferred. What kind of donor had they given me? Was she a drinker or a smoker? Could she have been over 35? We’d chosen an anonymous donor to make things less complicated in the future, but maybe the US system of choosing a donor based on detailed profiles, including family medical history and lifestyle checks, would have been more sensible. I felt naive for not having prepared myself for this scenario. Maybe I was blinded by hope; maybe I should have done more research.
We went to bed that night resigned to the fact that we would be leaving with nothing to show for all those weeks of preparation, tests and treatment. The next morning was spent at the pool, trying to relax before flying home. At about midday my mobile rang. It was the clinic. Our two embryos were suddenly doing much better and I’d be able to have the transfer after all. We were surprised, but jumped in our hire car and raced to the clinic.
The transfer went well and I was given a photo of my two embryos. In the run-up to the pregnancy test two weeks later I kept checking the picture, willing the embryos to stick. But they didn’t. After a blood test at our London clinic, I was told I wasn’t pregnant. I’d faced this disappointment many times before, but it was harder to accept this time, maybe because it felt like our last chance.
The Spanish clinic rang me and suggested trying again. ‘Could I request a donor who’s had children herself or produced a successful pregnancy through donation?’ I enquired. ‘Yes, you can,’ she said. I was shocked. Why hadn’t anyone told me that previously? I had been led to believe that I had no influence over the choice of donor. Maybe it’s cynical, but after being told my embryos ‘weren’t looking good’, I couldn’t help wondering if they were substandard but had been implanted anyway so I could be charged the price of a full cycle.
It was the end of the road for me. You need to know when to walk away. Somehow I knew I wouldn’t be one of those women who finally got her ‘miracle baby’ after 15 IVF attempts. Fertility treatment is wonderful when it gives you the child you’ve always dreamt of, but all we were left with was a file, three inches thick, cataloguing all our failures, test results and invoices adding up to nearly £50,000. Egg donation is no magic bullet. On average the chances of success are 33.4 per cent across the age groups, but when you break those figures down it’s just 20.8 per cent for women aged 40 to 42. My advice would be to give yourself a cutoff point and do your homework (see box). While sperm is easy to test for quality, eggs cannot be tested before they’re donated, so it’s wise to request a donor with a proven history of fertility.
Fertility treatment can cause rifts even in the strongest of couples, but if anything the experience brought Andy and me closer. However, I wasn’t prepared to keep putting us through the stress of fertility treatment when the odds were so bad. Once we’d made the decision not to have more treatment, it was a huge relief. Andy and I are now in the adoption process. My attitude has changed, too – it’s not about having a baby, it’s about having a family to share our lives with and giving someone else the chance of a good life. The assessment period has been a positive experience and we’ve just been approved.
Adopting a child is kind of like being pregnant – the months of preparation, wondering if it’ll be a boy or a girl and trying to imagine what this new person will look like. And, if the child turns out to be a girl, she’ll inherit some very cool handbags.
Egg donation abroad: the facts
Pip Morris of the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT), a charity trying to tackle the UK’s shortage of egg and sperm donors, has this advice… ● Look at the clinic’s success rate in your age group; the age of its donors (ideally 18-35); its genetic and medical screening for donors; its country’s law regarding anonymity; whether the clinic does many such procedures, and if it’s linked with UK clinics so you can have some of the treatments here.
● Read the small print: I’ve heard about a donor who was named on a birth certificate, which had huge implications for her and the couple who had wanted an anonymous donor. In the UK, donors must be prepared to be identified and traced when the child reaches 18.
● Many people go to foreign clinics because of shorter waiting lists, but you still need to consider the implications of carrying another woman’s egg.
● It’s important to trust the clinic; find out how it is monitored and if it has ever been inspected for irregularities.
● UK donors are typically older — aged 30 to 35 — but have usually had their own children and so have proven fertility. However, waiting lists are long — typically two and a half years unless you find your own donor — which is why NGDT is trying to raise awareness.
● Finally, remember, even with egg donation, overall there’s still only a 33.4 per cent success rate.
Article: 2nd December 2012 www.dailymail.co.uk