Despite massive changes in Irish society in recent decades, most young women still envisage a future where they will meet Mr Right, get married and have children (not necessarily in that order). However, more and more women who have not met a potential life partner by a certain age and whose biological clocks are ticking louder every year, are now opting to go it alone through donor conception.
Angela O’Mahony, counsellor at Cork Fertility Centre, says most of the single heterosexual women she meets who are considering sperm or egg donation have had a long desire to have a child, but have either not met anybody or were in a long-term relationship that did not work out.
“It’s a decision that does raise a lot of ethical and emotional issues for some people, the greatest of which is very much around the implications for the child into the future. Science has made so many amazing advances, but it also throws up challenges on so many levels.
“Counselling is an invitation to explore some of these complexities and challenges, to facilitate the woman making a decision that feels right for her and her potential child,” she says.
Once a woman has made the decision to go ahead and try for a baby through donor conception, the next major challenge facing her is whether to go for an identifiable (known) or anonymous donor. There are no sperm donation facilities in Ireland, so most Irish fertility clinics use sperm banks in Denmark where the law allows for donors to be identifiable, which means a child could contact their donor at the age of 18 if they chose to do so.
Dr John Waterstone, medical director of Cork Fertility Centre, says that while the number of single heterosexual women attending the clinic for donor conception is small, it is increasing. Three-quarters of women in this situation who attend his clinic are over the age of 37, and all clients considering donor conception at the clinic must undergo free mandatory counselling in advance of treatment.
“The donation co-ordinator then sits down with the client and goes through the list of available donors. Some donors will provide an extended profile with more information on their background, maybe a baby photo and even a voice clip, which is more expensive than a basic profile.
“Once a client chooses her donor, she needs to decide how much sperm to import. If she is planning to extend her family in the future, she might bring in more sperm so that all siblings come from the same donor,” he explains.
The sperm is deep frozen and imported in straws, one straw containing one unit of sperm. The cost varies depending on the number of straws purchased and whether the donor is anonymous or identifiable. For example, four straws from an open donor will cost about €3,350, and four straws from a closed donor will cost about €1,900.
Clients can opt for intrauterine insemination (IUI), a simple procedure that involves placing the donor sperm inside the uterus to facilitate fertilisation, or in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a more invasive procedure that involves combining the egg and donor sperm in a laboratory dish and transferring the embryo to the uterus. IVF is much more successful, particularly for women in their later 30s, but also about four times more expensive than IUI. The typical cost of one cycle in an Irish clinic is about €750, while the cost of a cycle of IVF is about €4,250.
Maria's story Cork woman Maria O'Sullivan (41) is the mother of two children, Zavier (5) and Aurora (20 months), conceived through a sperm donor. Her eldest daughter, Freya, who was conceived naturally, had just turned nine when she decided to look into sperm donation. She had been been in a relationship with a man who already had children, and did not want anymore. With the support of her GP, she decided to go ahead with treatment at Cork Fertility Clinic.
“I opted for an open donor as I wanted my child to have the choice of contacting the donor when he or she was 18. I had a choice of five donors and chose somebody I felt I would have sparked with if I was to meet him. It was like a blind date without actually meeting the person.”
After only one cycle of IUI, Maria was fortunate to get pregnant and her son Zavier was born at home in October 2010. She had some sperm from the same donor frozen at the clinic and, four years later, she decided to try for another baby. Aurora was conceived in March 2014, again through IUI and born at home in December that year.
“Freya is now a teenager and Zavier is starting school in September. Aurora is just a dote; she really completes our family. I had been parenting Freya on my own from the start so I knew I would be able to cope. I don’t have a lot of family around, but you make your own family. I have made great friends and have great support, it’s true that it takes a village.”
Maria has always been very open about how Zavier and Aurora were conceived and talked about it with Freya before they came.
A former kindergarten teacher, Maria is now at home with her children full-time. She also finds the time to volunteer as a doula, supporting other women through pregnancy, and with Le Leche League.
“I do worry about the financial side of things. I’m renting and the rental sector is a bit crazy at the moment, but I tell people not to let finances stop you from having a baby. There’s not much you need in the first couple of years, apart from your arms and boobs. I would definitely recommend sperm donation to other women. You can have a relationship any time in your life, but you can’t have babies any time. I’m so glad I had my babies, they’re amazing.”
Alison's story Alison (40) had been in a long-term relationship on and off with a man who had been married before and had two teenage boys. He had always been honest about the fact that he did not want any children, but she was convinced she would change his mind.
“I was 36 heading for 37 and the pressure was building. I went to the US for work, and was involved in a very serious head-on collision. That was a wake-up call for me. I loved the guy, but he was not prepared to have more children so we split up. It was a difficult decision but the right one.”
Six months after the breakup, Alison made the big decision to try for a baby alone through sperm donation. Two close female friends encouraged her on her journey, while her mother and sister attended appointments and supported her along the way.
“I was 37 heading for 38 when I made the decision. I had a voice constantly in the back of my mind saying you can’t not be a mum and that voice got louder every year. My friends and brother were on their way down the traditional life path of marriage and children that I had always thought I would follow. My family were not staunch supporters of my decision at the beginning but, to be fair to my parents, their concern was coming from the right place. They knew how hard it was raising kids with two parents, let alone one.”
Alison was referred by her GP to the Clane Fertility Clinic (since acquired by Instituto Marques). It took two rounds of IUI and one round of IVF before she became pregnant with her daughter Katy, now two years and 10 months old.
She is open about how she had Katy and intends to be open with her daughter in the future. For now, she explains to Katy how every family is different and while she doesn’t have a daddy, she has a mummy who loves her very much.
“Katy is not three yet but she says “Mammy, I have no Daddy” She sees the dads collecting other children from her childminder’s house. She has my dad and brother as male role models and if the right person comes into our lives, I would like him to adopt Katy, but I would need to be 150 per cent sure about him.”
A communications manager, Alison has a busy career and, as the sole provider for her little family, bears all the responsibilities for her daughter’s care. There is nobody to help her in the middle of the night when Katy is sick, nobody to help her with drop-offs and collections and it’s simply not an option for her to be sick herself.
Despite all of the challenges though, she says the decision to have Katy was the best she ever made and she will never forget the day her daughter was put into her arms for the first time and describes motherhood as “incredibly rewarding”.
As an administrator for the Single Mums by Choice and Single Mums By Choice in Waiting private Facebook groups, Alison explains that the groups are strictly for women either trying to or who have conceived through sperm donation. Anybody who wants to join can send a request via email to firstname.lastname@example.org which will be reviewed by the administrators. Members of the group come from all over Ireland, but are mainly concentrated in the Dublin area and they meet up for regular coffee mornings and days out.
Counsellor Angela O’Mahony says one of the biggest challenges for women considering donor conception tends to be about how to deal sensitively with questions from their child about the identity and whereabouts of the donor.
She encourages women to look for as much non-identifiable information as possible to help give their child a better sense of who the donor is, such as what kind of music they like or whether they are into football. This may also help the child to identify where his /her particular interest or talent originated.
“Women who opt for sperm donation on their own often have made a safe and conscious choice about how to have their baby. The sharing of the genetic narrative with a child is part of that decision-making process. While this can be daunting for some, keeping it age appropriate and honest tends to work well for most mothers,” O’Mahony.