Written by Annie Caulfield

Health

One little dot

In her early 40s, Annie Caulfield and her partner travelled to Spain for fertility treatment. Here, the dramatist reflects on the events that ensued, and explains why we need to take a different approach to the way we discuss the topic of egg donation.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

I have a play on Radio 4 this month, and some people won’t like it. They might hate the writing, fair enough. But I know the content will bother quite a few people, because it reflects a largely positive view of egg donation.

The play was tough to write. I usually say what I think by dramatising other people’s lives, from Dusty Springfield to soldiers in Iraq, but in this play I risked a version of myself and my partner: let’s call him Sean.

The story happened because I fell in love too late. I was 40 and Sean – this funny, good-looking, soulmate of a 40 year-old man – turned up at a party. He ended what had been an interesting single life. You know the kind; where you seem really adventurous and independent, but you’re too lonely, too often.

“We would be travelling to Valencia quite a few times, paying flights and hotel bills. But a child mattered so much more than money.”

A year later, we were still happy. We started noticing friends over 40 pairing off and having babies. Why didn’t we try?

We tried: we did tests. His sperm were jumping but my eggs were really not worth the bother. Even using them for IVF I’d have a 5% chance. But I’d have a 40-60% chance with donated eggs. This meant going private to use the satellite service my London hospital ran with a clinic in Valencia. We would pay a Spanish donor and clinic expenses; we would be travelling to Valencia quite a few times, paying flights and hotel bills… But a child mattered so much more than money.

Why go abroad? A change in British law in 2005 ended anonymity for donors. British donors became few and far between. The traceability makes both donors and recipients nervous.

For the donor, the procedure is intrusive, needing general anaesthetic, and there’s a risk of ovarian hyperstimulation – a condition that sometimes results in life-threatening illness. British donors are paid a few hundred pounds. The £1,000 our Spanish donor was paid to cover expenses, time and risk seemed fairer.

Our donor was a woman in her late 20s who’d already had her own children. She received regular health checks and was as close a match to us as could be found across the continent.

While she had injections to stimulate egg growth, I took hormones to get my womb ready. The hormones made me nuts and it seemed the call to rush over to Valencia would never come. But it did. The donor’s eggs had been harvested with a fine needle while she was under anaesthetic and successfully fertilised with Sean’s sperm.

In the state of the art clinic, I was comfortably fully conscious and hooked into stirrups while a glamorous female gynaecologist implanted two embryos through a thin glass tube. Sean watched the monitor with me. Tiny dots on a screen. Two for better chances, although twins are common in donor pregnancies.

There were four more fertilised embryos frozen as back-up. We needed them. In London a pregnancy test told us the implanted embryos had not taken. This was miserable but I started the hormone process again and we went back to wait in the hotel in Valencia.

The morning of the procedure the gynaecologist called. The embryos hadn’t survived the unfreezing process. This was rare but it happened. If we’d like to try again, at a reduced fee…I was so angry and wretched I refused. Sean said: “Let’s take a walk and talk about it.”

We walked. I realised I couldn’t give up yet either.

This time it worked. One little dot was thriving. A sonogram in the London clinic showed me a tiny heartbeat. I was really pregnant.

Health and safety rules meant Sean wasn’t allowed in the sonogram room. All he had was a printout of the scan but the nurse in charge was a sweetheart, I was sure she’d bend the rules. I was going to ask her when I went in for a scan on the edge of the three-month mark.

But the heartbeat had stopped. Just quietly like that, our baby had gone. I met Sean outside the hospital and howled in the street like a wounded animal. I couldn’t bear it. Neither of us could bear it for a very long time.

My physical exhaustion and the misery we were sunk into meant that trying again would be too horrible. We discussed adoption for a while but it just didn’t feel right after we’d come to love the little heartbeat so much.

We clung together, getting stronger, closer because of this. Except I secretly couldn’t leave it alone. I started looking at internet sites telling me what I’d done was abominable; that disreputable clinics bought eggs for next to nothing from very poor women putting their health at great risk; that I was involved in a form of human trafficking; that donor children would feel a terrible lack from not knowing their origins… On and on.

“We needed to accept that decades of science fiction nightmare hysteria were holding back proper discussion.”

All the negativity was aimed at women who’d left it too late. But women could be avoiding passing on inheritable diseases, or have suffered very premature menopause. There were many other reasons.

I found groups holding public debates about the scientific and sociological implications of egg donation. There was so much I hadn’t thought about. Should the child be told? Should this be regarded as something as distant as organ donation? As casually as sperm donation?

One debate, held at university, had a heckler shouting about the sanctity of life. A panellist came back at him: the first egg donor baby had been born in 1983. We needed to accept that decades of science fiction nightmare hysteria were holding back proper discussion and a proper environment for children not born through traditional biology to grow up in, so they didn’t feel freakish. The panellist concluded ferociously, “And don’t talk to me about the sanctity of life on this planet, when half its children are dying of starvation, thirst, preventable disease. Right here they’re injured and psychologically scarred with atrocious cruelty from biological parents, or social alienation… Children that are fed, thoughtfully loved and kept sane, wherever they come from, that’s what the world needs. Not arguments about how they got here.”

Enough listening, I thought. Time to take a deep breath and write my story.

I’ve a thousand words here and the play is only 45 minutes. I wish there was more said that accepted how many successful donor children there are in the world now. It’s time to have calm conversations, thoughtful strategies and widely accessible information for donors, recipients and most importantly, for their children.

For further information, visit Progress Educational Trust at www.progress.org.uk.

Annie Caulfield’s play, CREDIT CARD BABY, starring Helen Baxendale and Ciaran McMenamin, is on BBC Radio 4 on 30 April at 2.15pm, then available on iPlayer for seven days.

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Written by Annie Caulfield

Annie Caulfield is a dramatist, travel writer and broadcaster. Originally from Northern Ireland, she lives in London or a Spanish cave. www.anniecaulfield.com