‘The woman who received my eggs two years ago had a baby,’ the 34-year-old from Sussex replies carefully, ‘but I don’t have a child of my own.’ Another silence. ‘The day I learnt that, I felt as though I’d given away my only chance of motherhood. It’s been an ongoing process of grief ever since.’ As anyone who’s struggled with fertility issues knows, there’s no fairness in the journey to start a family. For some, a single month is all it takes; for others, it’s years of heartbreak and thousands of pounds before they succeed. For many facing infertility, there’s no happy ever after at all.
On paper, egg sharing – which is only done in the private system – seems like a great way to rebalance the scales. A woman with healthy eggs but without the necessary funds – one IVF cycle can cost £5,000 or more – gets a free (or almost free) roll of the IVF dice. A couple without eggs get the chance they so desperately want. Surely it’s a win-win situation. Except, of course, it isn’t that simple. Because, as women like Emma have found, there can be success for the egg recipient but empty arms for the egg sharer.
In fact, the process is a minefield filled with financial incentives, as well as emotional and ethical landmines. Not that Emma expected that two years ago when she entered the fertility clinic. A business owner (she is a dog behaviourist) with savings, she says her biological clock was ticking loudly. There wasn’t a partner in the picture, but she didn’t want to ‘go out and get myself pregnant’.
She’d been introduced to the idea by her sister, who had shared her own eggs and had twin girls as a result. Emma reasoned that she could use up much of her savings on the two or three cycles of IVF doctors said it might take to conceive. Or, she could try egg sharing, saving the money for her family’s future.
It was, she admits, a purely financial decision. ‘It was the chance to have that free IVF cycle; I wouldn’t have donated my eggs altruistically. Although I thought I was prepared for the emotional impact, I wasn’t.’ What about the counselling that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) requires participants to be offered? A small laugh. ‘At the assessment stage it was ridiculous, just a 10-minute checklist.
‘As soon as the cycle began, I had such a strong attachment to the eggs and follicles that I thought about backing out. But by then the personal pressure was on. I knew an equally desperate couple were trying to conceive at the same time and backing out would have devastated them.’ At first, all went well. Emma produced 14 mature eggs that were split between her and the recipient couple. Her seven eggs were mixed with sperm she bought from a sperm bank and she anxiously waited to hear how many would be put back.
‘They all fertilised normally and by day three I had five really good-quality embryos, which was amazing. But on day four I got the terrible news that none of them had survived. In that second, it was over for me. ‘It was devastating. Having given half my eggs to someone else, all I could think was, “I want them back.” But it was too late.’ That devastation was compounded when, two weeks later, Emma asked the clinic about the recipient couple. ‘I feel incredibly guilty about my reaction even now, but hearing it had worked for them was awful.’
Another egg sharer I spoke to, Lisa*, who faced a negative pregnancy test, but a recipient’s success, offers stark advice to donors: ‘Don’t ask about the other couple.’ However, it isn’t that easy. The removal of anonymity from egg and sperm donors in April 2005 means that any donor-conceived child has the right to know the identity of their biological parents.\
At the age of 18, they can, in theory, go and find them. This could mean added heartbreak for Emma, who later learnt a boy had been born from her egg. ‘I do have constant thoughts about him. What does he look like? How is he doing? What are his parents like? And he’ll be able to find out about me when he’s 18. Will he contact me if he knows he was conceived this way?’
It’s one of the many tricky ethical issues around fertility, says Jackie Leach Scully, professor of social ethics and bioethics at Newcastle University. ‘Although we can predict some potential implications, we won’t know until adults born from donation reach 18 and can start finding out about their biological parents.’
Meanwhile, as technology moves in leaps and bounds, is science moving faster than the law? ‘The difficulty is in trying to regulate technologies at the cutting edge of science in a way that most of us can endorse,’ says Leach Scully. ‘It’s important that there’s a rigorous set of checks and balances to prevent women being persuaded, for financial reasons, to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.’ Emma agrees. She argues that having £5,000 worth of treatment dangled in front of you – incentive far beyond the £750 that clinics are legally allowed to compensate women for their eggs – encourages some to do things they wouldn’t usually consider.
It’s a sentiment felt by others in the field, including Susan Seenan, chief executive of Infertility Network UK. ‘We should be encouraging altruistic donation so there’s no shortage of egg donors, and offering all those eligible the recommended number of cycles on the NHS, not offering egg sharing as the only way to access treatment.’ Research certainly suggests that money is acting as an enticement to share eggs. A 2006 study found when couples were offered six free IVF cycles in Belgium, the number of egg sharers dropped by 70 per cent.
Lisa isn’t surprised. She was devastated to hear that her cycle had failed. ‘It was awful. I was at the train station, sobbing on the phone to my mum. I said, “I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.” I felt that the rich person had got the better eggs, even though deep down I knew that wasn’t true. But I felt hassled to harvest my eggs so someone who was able to pay could have them. The whole system is unfair. If couples could afford an IVF cycle or have it on the NHS, I don’t think many people would consider egg sharing.’
Not all participants feel this way. Rebecca Kenyon, 26, from Essex, has never regretted her decision. Both she and her egg recipient became pregnant and she now has a 16-month-old daughter. But she’s adamant that even if it had worked for the other couple and not for her, she would have been fine with the outcome. ‘When I donate an egg it’s a cell, just like blood. Once that cell is gone, it isn’t mine any more and what happens next is none of my business.’
She occasionally wonders what the other child is doing, but isn’t worried about possibly meeting them in the future. ‘I’d be happy for them to seek me out at 18. Biology is just biology, genes don’t make you family.’ Emma, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see a ban on egg sharing. She recognises that it’s a last resort for many people and, after vowing never to do it again, she gave it another shot six months later. ‘I was driven by desperation to have a baby. That time, because I didn’t produce many eggs, it was decided that all the eggs would be given to the other couple. After that I’d have a free cycle where all the eggs produced would be for me alone.’
Neither cycle resulted in a pregnancy. ‘It feels terrible to say this but I was relieved. How would I have coped with two pregnancies, and two children, out there? Now I’m considering home insemination because that way I’m in control. I’d never go to a clinic for IVF again, even for an individual cycle. I couldn’t face it.’
Emma is telling her story because she wants people to consider every possible outcome. ‘Women need to think more about the consequences of egg sharing. The desire for a baby can be so strong that it pushes everything else aside. I’ve learnt the hard way that there aren’t always happy endings.’