Judging by the success of TV programmes like One Born Every Minute and now the second series of The Midwives on BBC 2, it seems we can’t get enough of the miracle of pregnancy and birth. Last night the focus was on teenage mums and older mothers. The big question that loomed in my mind throughout the hour was, were we seeing two older women who had used a donor to help with conception or just one. Thirty-eight year old Lisa was completely upfront about having had help from an anonymous sperm donor to conceive her boy/girl twins. A warm, intelligent and competent seeming woman she was a very good advertisement for solo mothers by choice, although unusual, in my experience, in not really wishing she had had a partner with whom to have children. She was used to doing things alone and happy to parent that way too.
Artemis age 48 and her husband Bill 50 had only met when Artemis was in her early forties. They were not ready to have children immediately but when they decided that they would like to be parents they were determined to do so despite pessimistic predictions from fertility doctors about their chances. IVF was mentioned as being necessary but egg donation was not. It was stated that in Birmingham (where filming took place at the Women’s Hospital) NHS IVF is not available after age 43 which meant that Artemis and Bill had to seek private treatment. What it did not say is that the reason for IVF not being funded after this age is that the chances of a woman conceiving a first child after 43 or 44 with her own eggs is miniscule. At 48 it is highly unlikely.
Artemis developed gestational diabetes – a not unusual pregnancy complication for older women – and it was mentioned that there was a family history of this happening, continuing the assumption that the baby had been conceived without donor help. I almost began to believe it too – miracles do happen, there must be some 48 year olds with viable eggs. But then, when interviewed at home when her baby was a month old, the confidence that Artemis had about having a sibling made me pretty sure that egg donation must have been used.
Why should it matter whether egg donation has helped with a conception or not? A wonderful child has been brought into the world and the dreams of a couple, who will almost certainly make excellent, wise and thoughtful parents, have been fulfilled. I have banged on about this before but here goes again. There are at least two good reasons for being honest about using an egg donor. The first is that denying that you have done so continues the myth that it is possible for any woman in her late forties to conceive simply by having IVF. IVF requires viable eggs without chromosomal abnormalities in order to work. Women are born with a finite number of eggs (unlike men who manufacture sperm all the time). Notwithstanding a woman’s health or positive attitude, her eggs develop chromosomal problems as they age and by her late forties a woman will have very few, if any, that are without these defects. Leading women to believe that they can conceive without donor help at this sort of age leads to disappointment, sadness, heartbreak and breaking the bank when huge sums are spent on futile attempts at IVF. There is no shame in donor conception. Why not be out and proud about it.
The second reason for being honest about using a donor is that children deserve not to be mislead about the genetic connections in the family. Having a lie about something as fundamental at this at the heart of a family does not promote the honesty and trust that should exist between parents and children.
OK, soapbox moment over. You can read more (or actually more of the same) on this topic via the links below, but in the meantime I wish all the families shown on last night’s programme well, particularly perhaps the teenagers whose changed lives are likely to be more difficult to manage than those of the older parents who had sought parenthood so positively.