When Doreen Cullen tells people she recently became a mum to Noah, now six months, the responses run the proverbial gamut.
“Some people say, ‘I didn’t even know you were in a relationship,’ or things like ‘Do you know who the father is?’” she laughs.
She doesn’t know, as it happens. Like a growing number of Irish women who want to become parents on their own, Cullen (35) took matters into her own hands. Noah was conceived in a fertility clinic via an IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) procedure, after three failed IUI (intrauterine insemination) procedures, where sperm is inserted into the uterus using a catheter. Noah was conceived using sperm from a donor his mother never met.
“I always said if I never met anyone [romantically], I’d see about doing it myself,” Cullen says. “I went to the doctors when I was 33, and they were like, ‘If this is what you want, why wait?’ My friends were like, ‘You’re dead right. At least you won’t have a fella to annoy you.’ They tell me I could have had a one-night stand, but I couldn’t just go out one night and get pregnant.”
The most recent data from the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) shows that in 2018, Irish fertility clinics received 1,012 units of donor sperm from outside Ireland, mostly from sperm banks in Denmark. But that number is on the rise, according to the clinics.
A small group of women have wanted to start families but their partners didn't comply, and they became recently single. It's not a big group, but a distinctive one
“Last year showed an increase in inquiries, possibly due to an increased acceptance and public awareness,” says Dr Bart Kuczera, fertility consultant at Beacon Care Fertility in Dublin.
Of those making inquiries, he observes: “They’re of all ages – in general, Irish women don’t typically start their families earlier. They are usually around their mid-30s and beyond. A small group of women have wanted to start families but their partners didn’t comply, and they became recently single. It’s not a big group, but a distinctive one. The youngest I’ve seen was 23, but usually the clients are aged around 34 and over.”
At the Beacon, donor sperm is sourced via a licensing arrangement through the European Sperm Bank in Copenhagen. Danish law has long allowed for donors to be identifiable. All donors have to go through a rigorous screening process, including psychological and physical tests, and an examination of their sexual and medical histories. It's estimated that only 5 per cent of men who apply are accepted to become donors.
Currently, there are no facilities in Irish fertility clinics for men to donate sperm.
“People in Denmark are regarded as one of the healthiest populations in Europe, so it’s easy enough to find good-quality donors,” Kuczera says.
“We leave the selection to the ladies, although they have to attend counselling and have a medical to ensure there are no obstructions and that [Fallopian] tubes are open.
“In America, you can ‘order’ a donor that’s a university-educated, top-tier athlete, nearly a Nobel Prize-winner,” Kuczera adds. “In Ireland, we don’t have that.”
Irish donor sperm recipients traditionally had a choice around anonymous or non-anonymous donation.
“Anonymous” meant the donor would never know the child’s identity, and the child would never be able to contact or communicate with him. The alternative arrangement enables the child to make contact with the donor through the requisite sperm bank on becoming 18.
But since 2015 changes to the Children and Family Relationships Act now provides for a National Donor-Conceived Person Register. For all children born in the State through donor conception, Irish fertility clinics must now supply to the registrar names and identifying details of the child, the donor and their parent. It means that children will be informed they were conceived by donor when they apply for a birth certificate after the age of 18. The birth certificate issued will have a code on it.
The donor is not allowed to receive information about the identity of the recipient couple or the child, and has no paternal rights.
“Irish regulation is quite unique in that we have enforced disclosure,” Kuczera says. “Even if a woman doesn’t tell the child [about the donor], there is a legal way that a limited amount of identifying information can be released to the child at the age of 18. Single women are more open to the idea of a non-anonymous donation.”
Not all women who have a child with donor sperm wait until their later fertile years. The Cork Fertility Centre estimates that a quarter of the heterosexual women who attend the clinic for this service are under the age of 37.
Debbie Morone (42), who lives in Kildare, is mother to nine-year-old twins Oscar and Isabella. She describes the family as a tight unit.
“I look at the three of us and I know that my purpose in life is to be their mam,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but that’s how I feel – my job is to give them the best life.”
Working in the Civil Service in Portlaoise in her mid-20s, Morone recalls, the urge to have a child hit her “out of the blue”.
“I have severe scoliosis, and it was implied that I should never go down that [childbearing] route. But by the time I got to 26, out of nowhere I had this massive urge. Even Pampers ads would make me cry. It was more important for me to be a mam than someone’s wife.”
For five years, Morone extensively researched IUI and IVF procedures.
“No one [in an Irish fertility clinic] would treat me at the time because I was single,” she says. “I looked at flying sperm in from Scandinavia – I could get it out of Scandinavia, but not into Ireland. I encountered so much negativity, because I was 33 and felt I had to justify why I was doing it.”
Undeterred, Morone decided to shift her attentions to clinics in Spain, where her family owned property. Spain has about 400 assisted reproduction clinics, among the highest number in the world. In 2015, 2,801 babies were conceived through donations, and 0.7 per cent of all babies there were born using sperm donations, according to the Spanish Fertility Society.
“When I told them about my medical history and they told me that it was possible to conceive, I nearly died,” she says. “I didn’t know how to process this good news.”
Made in Dublin
Cullen’s fertility journey started at the Sims clinic in Dublin. With the full support of her family, with whom she lives, she put the wheels in motion in December 2017. She was tested to determine the quality of her ovarian reserves, and planned a path of treatment with specialists. She initially decided on IUI over IVF, because of the cost: “IVF is about five grand, while IUI is about two grand.”
Three failed IUI procedures later, Cullen started her first IVF cycle on New Year’s Day in 2019. By January 31st she had a positive pregnancy test.
Picking a sperm sample, Cullen notes, was an overwhelming part of the process.
“You got on to this website and get a special sign-in, and literally you go on [the donors’ own] baby pictures,” she says. “You pick a sample based on hair colour, eye colour and heights. I got totally overwhelmed and thought, ‘I can’t do this’. I had to do a counselling session during the process to make sure I was mentally sound, and I told the counsellor this was the one thing I was struggling with. She then told me I could just get a sheet and tick the boxes [for preferred qualities]. In the end I picked red hair, blue eyes, and average height and weight.”
Now, Cullen is facing the challenges of single parenthood head-on.
“I’ve done 20 weeks of night feeds, but I don’t feel hard done by. I decided to do this,” she says. “I know people who have separated and have kids, and it’s all, ‘It’s my weekend, it’s your weekend’, or they’re trying to get money out of them. I don’t have any of that.”
For Morone, too, the first few months of single parenthood were a “blur”.
“I’d chosen to go down this route, and I put huge pressure on myself to make sure the house was spotless and I had make-up on when visitors came,” she says. “No one cared, of course. But I ran myself into the ground, and realised that I had postnatal depression. The kids were 2½ when it hit me, and I had to have therapy and medication. I did have this feeling that people might think, ‘Well, you chose to do this, what did you expect?’ ”
Clodagh O’Hagan (43), a PR executive, is due to give birth to her first child, a son, in May. Her decision to undergo an IUI procedure using donor sperm was a “gradual process that culminated with a sharp action point” after a long-term relationship reached a natural end.
“At that point, I became more conscious that working towards having a baby was what I wanted,” she says. “Life went on. I continued to date. In some instances, I thought, How did I almost consider having a baby in that situation? It would have been madness. I hadn’t given up on meeting someone, but I did start to think about the potential of going out and parenting on my own.”
Going it alone was always an option I'd had on the long finger – I mean, it's not your first choice
She was on a beach holiday when a doctor rang her with unrelated blood tests. They soon discussed her fertility levels.
“She basically told me that, at 41, time wasn’t on my side,” O’Hagan says . “While I was aware of what happens to a woman’s fertility when they get older, the realities hadn’t kicked in. Going it alone was always an option I’d had on the long finger – I mean, it’s not your first choice. There were some bittersweet tears on that beach. There was a sad acceptance that if I was doing it, I was doing it on my own. It’s a grieving process in itself.”
Returning to Dublin, O’Hagan had been informed that an IUI procedure had roughly a 5 per cent chance of working, whereas an IVF procedure had a 7 per cent chance of producing a baby.
“It was a huge blow, like I’d been lulled into a false sense of security.” In the end she decided to forgo the option of a donor egg, and attempted IUI using two “straws” of donor sperm. The sperm is deep frozen and imported in straws, with each straw containing one unit of sperm. The cost varies depending on the number of straws purchased. Four straws from an open donor can cost about €3,500-€4,000.
“It’s like a weird Tinder,” O’Hagan laughs, describing the sizeable online database of donors. “You look at physical characteristics, and can look into the genetic health line of donors’ parents and grandparents. You also get a full psychological profile. There’s also a letter written from the donor, and I remember one of them seemed like a really great bloke.”
There was a brief worry about the isolation of doing this on my own, but now I see it as our own little adventure
Of her donor, O’Hagan says: “The profiles come with a photo of the donor at about four or five. [The donor I chose] had big, gorgeous, kind eyes. Because I’m having a boy, I’ll expect to see something from that picture, but I don’t think too much about the donor above and beyond that. The donor is anonymous, although he has already agreed that when my child turns 18 and wishes to make contact, he is happy for that to happen.”
A 4am pregnancy test a few weeks later confirmed the best news. “I had the most lovely tears in that moment,” O’Hagan recalls. “There was a brief worry about the isolation of doing this on my own, but now I see it as our own little adventure.
“I don’t miss drink. I don’t miss going out – you could say I’ve torn the arse out of it for long enough, so I’m ready for a different scene,” she laughs.
“The things I worry about, I know that other parents have those fears and experience those worries, too, so that helps take the sting out of the fear. I don’t think one [way of parenting] is any better than the other. You don’t have the companionship, but on the other hand you don’t have to worry about compromise.”
In Spain, Morone had a different experience when it came to choosing a sperm sample.
“The way Spanish law is, you get basic info – a job and physical characteristics. They told me to choose characteristics similar to my own, like blond hair and blue eyes. I never knew who he was, which is just as well as I’d probably rock up at his door,” she laughs.
One of the biggest challenges these women face is dealing sensitively with questions from their children about the identity of the donor.
Kuczera believes that, with attitudes changing rapidly around assisted reproduction, there is a distinct possibility that by the time today’s generation of infants reach 18, “sperm donor babies” will be entirely commonplace in Ireland.
I'm an old romantic really, and I know if I ever got his name, I'd be straight on Google. I tell myself that I have to snap out of that
“Think of it this way – what was the attitude to same-sex marriage or divorce 18 years ago?” Kuczera says. “You can already notice a huge difference there. A lot can happen in 20 years, and I suspect this will be a much more common thing.”
In Spain, donor anonymity is enforced. But a bioethics committee attached to the ministry of health announced plans late last year to potentially remove anonymity rights from sperm and egg donors.
Morone’s children have asked about the identity of the man who fathered them.
“I asked a couple of women who went down the same route and they advised me to keep it simple, and keep science out of it until they can handle it,” she says. “Oscar and Isabella know that I desperately wanted a baby, and there’s a very special man out there who helped me get pregnant. I’m proud of the trio we have become.”
Occasionally, Morone thinks of the stranger with whom she has created the “two sweetest little souls”.
“I’m an old romantic really, and I know if I ever got his name, I’d be straight on Google. I tell myself that I have to snap out of that. I did this for me, to bring these children into the world, and no one else matters.
“We have very open conversations, and I try and instil in them that every family is different and unique. No one family is lesser or more special. When we say our prayers at night, we always make sure to thank the man who helped Mammy have them.”