Ruby* was in a restaurant on what she describes as “the latest in a series of crap dates” when she decided to have a child with a stranger. But it wasn’t the stranger she found herself listening to drone on about something to do with accounting. Ruby decided to join an increasing number of women in their forties becoming mothers using IVF and donor sperm.
“I knew I wanted a child,” she explains. “But I hated dating with the child thing hanging over my head. At my age I was having to consider not just if we were compatible but what they would be like as a father, and would they want to have a baby in a relatively short period.”
Like many women who find themselves in their early forties and still searching for the husband they had just assumed would be coming their way, Ruby was increasingly aware that she was in the twilight of her reproductive years. Although single motherhood wasn’t her ideal, she says it was the only way she would be able to achieve her dream of motherhood.
The number of single women accessing donor sperm has been steadily on the increase the last decade. Between 1993 and 2009, around a third of babies born in Australia with the use of donor sperm were to single women, and at Monash IVF last year, of 57 women who used donor sperm, 39 were single women.
IVF specialists put the escalation in the number of single women accessing IVF down to the number of women over the age of forty actively seeking to become mothers. Currently, the average age of single women accessing fertility treatment is 39.5, two years higher than partnered IVF couples.
An even greater increase in the use of donor sperm for women of all ages is expected, with the 2010, the law change, which now provides Medicare rebates for single women who wish to access assisted reproduction.
For Ruby, the concept of sperm donation wasn’t entirely foreign. “The first time I heard about sperm donation was when I was about 34 and a lesbian couple friends of mine went the donor option,” she said. “I thought at the time it was pretty smart of them not to go with a known donor because of all the difficulties in the relationships that may come later, but that was about it.
“The first time I thought about it for myself was the eve of my 40th birthday party a very old friend turned up and told me how she was going to do it. At first I thought, what is she thinking? But the idea was planted.
“My mantra had always been I really want children but I don’t want to do it by myself. But then I started thinking, I could do this.”
For Ruby, the only option in becoming a single mother was via donor sperm. “I remember someone once saying, ‘Oh why don’t you just go down to the pub and get yourself pregnant?’ But consent has always been important to me.”
Ruby made an appointment with her GP who referred her to an IVF specialist. Counseling is legally mandatory for any woman conceiving using donor material, be it an egg or sperm. Amongst the issues discussed at the concelling sessions, Ruby had the legalities of sperm donation explained to her.
Under the law, the donor has no rights or responsibilities. He does not have to pay child support and he has no rights to access. The donor would be given no information about mother or child, but once the child turns 18, he can ask to be given all the personal details of the donor and even request to meet him.
Ruby started treatment, the first step being to choose a donor. “I thought it was a fairly weird process – do you choose according to what you would look for in a partner or do you choose for other reasons? It ended up being a combination of both.
“Because Lachlan might meet the donor one day it was important that he be a reasonable human being. The other thing was health.
“In the end it came down to the message the donor wrote to the children who will be born from his donation. It said have a go at life, have a good crack, you’ll never know unless you have a good go at the things that are important to you. He seemed quite easy going. He donated as a service to the community – he already has children.”
Yet, having chosen the donor, Ruby soon learned that the hardest part of the journey was ahead of her. Donor sperm or not, there is no guarantee that a pregnancy will result from IVF and artificial insemination, especially for a woman over the age of 40.
At age 40, a woman has just a five per cent chance of falling pregnant naturally but at least a 12 per cent chance of success using artificial insemination or IVF. It’s hopeful, but, as Ruby discovered, it doesn’t happen over night.
“I had three cycles [the process by which eggs are ‘harvested’] and eight transfers [the process by which the embryo is implanted back into the mother],” she says “It’s really confronting, once you have made the decision to have a child, to think am I physically able to still have children?”
Then, with the last stored embryo implanted, Ruby became pregnant with Lachlan.
Not everyone was as thrilled with the outcome as Ruby. The passing of the law allowing IVF access to single women and making it Medicare subsidised hasn’t been without it’s critics, including the Australian Christian Lobby, who have been vocal in their believe that the law should not encourage women to have and raise children without a father.
Ruby defends her decision to go it alone, saying that the anxiety and heartache associated with fertility treatment means that IVF children are wanted and loved dearly.
She also dismisses the perception that IVF allows women who are really too old to have children. “Having a baby is a massive decision for anyone, and going through the difficulties of IVF, be it the drugs or paying for the treatment or having to do the thinking about how you are going to do this, no one is going to do that lightly.”
Ruby says there are definite advantages to having a baby in her forties. “The best thing about being a mum over 40 is that you are that much more relaxed. You’ve got a lot more resources. I’m financially secure, I have my own home, I’ve been in my job for a long time and I had plenty of leave owing.
“I have traveled a lot and lived in five different countries, had great jobs. I’ve got the resources emotionally. I thought I could raise a good human being and that would be a great contribution to society.”
But she admits there is a downside. “I worry that I am not going to be as physically active as I might have been. I want to be able to run around with him. I am quite conscious of my health and my fitness now.”
Ruby has a plan for explaining to Lachlan how he came to be. “I want to do the whole age appropriate thing. I’ll start by telling him about how a nice man and woman – because the donor is married – helped Mum because she really wanted a baby; that his mum loved him very much, even before he was born. Then after a while we will talk about the donor, then later on we will look at his profile.
“People have been really supportive and ecstatic that I’m able to be a mother,” says Ruby of her family and friends. “Of course there are some people who think I am mad, because it’s not their life choice. And there are a few people pissed off that I can’t come to the pub with them anymore.”
Ruby says she is full of gratitude for the donor, but views him only as someone who assisted her in having a baby. “I don’t feel like I have an emotional attachment to him at all,” she says. “He is a sperm donor. He is not a friend or a partner. And who knows, I might meet someone one day and then Lachlan will really have a dad.”
* Names have been changed.