Giving strangers the gift of parenthood

"Our embryo will provide the building blocks for the recipient mother to grow a baby": Mum of two and embryo donor Amy.
"Our embryo will provide the building blocks for the recipient mother to grow a baby": Mum of two and embryo donor Amy. Photo: Getty Images

"I look at my son and I still see him as representing the end of a long, difficult journey."

The journey mother-of-two Amy is referring to is one which took almost three years, involved two rounds of IVF treatment at separate clinics, several miscarriages and abdominal surgeries, all before ending in the birth of her first child four years ago.

"I love both my children equally of course, but because I struggled to become a mum the joy and relief I felt at the birth of my first child is particularly special to me."

Now the Queensland mum and her husband, Luke, want to help other couples achieve that same happy ending by giving away the most generous of gifts - their three unused frozen embryos.

The couple, who don't want to reveal their surname for privacy issues, are among a growing number of parents who are making the decision to donate their unused embryos to other couples once their own IVF journey is over and their family is complete.

"If we can't use them, we don't want them going to waste," Amy says. "So we're looking for someone to pass them on to. That's just the way we have always been."

According to IVF Australia, enquiries about embryo donation have increased by 50 per cent in the past 12 months.

This increased interest has resulted in fertility support groups launching services to connect donating couples with potential recipients so the parties can share information, making the process more accessible for all involved.

One such service was launched by Embryo Donation Network Australia last month, and is already proving popular with both donors and potential recipients.

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The website, known as Embryo Connect, allows potential donors from around the country to view information about recipients in the hope of finding someone they are happy to gift their embryo to.

Angela Ferguson, president of Embryo Donation Network, says the website provides couples with privacy, while also giving them as much information as they require to make a decision.

Information shared on the website could include the potential recipient's ages, health details, fertility history, and habits such as smoking. 

"We believe couples should have a choice when it comes to how they want to deal with the issue of embryos left over from their own IVF treatment," Ms Ferguson says. "But if they do choose to donate, many couples have an idea about the type of person or couple they want to donate to. Embryo Connect allows those couples to access information about potential recipients. However both parties maintain their privacy until such time as they choose to exchange contact details."

Professor Peter Illingworth, medical director of IVF Australia, says the topic of embryo donation is no longer a taboo topic among families seeking fertility treatment.

He also believes couples who do choose to donate should be able to have as little or as much help as they desire when it comes to choosing who to give their embryos to.

"This is not a decision that people make easily. It is a long and emotional process for many couples," Professor Illingworth said.

IVF Australia also recently launched a donor/recipient matching website for use by its patients to help with the increased interest in embryo donation. Before registering as a potential donor or recipient all parties must undergo IVF Australia counselling which covers issues such as how much contact the donor and recipient families imagine having if a baby is born as a result of the embryo donation. 

"People are under no obligation to reveal everything about themselves and are not bound by any information they provide," Professor Illingworth says. 

Amy says the decision to donate excess embryos was an easy one for her and Luke. 

She doesn't feel uneasy about another couple raising a child which is genetically her son or daughter, and a full sibling to her own two children. She instead believes she and her husband are simply providing the "building blocks" which the recipient parents will then use to create their own child.

"Sure, our egg and sperm were used to create the embryos, so there will always be that genetic link," she says. "But I will not be the one pregnant. It will be the other mother's body growing the baby, the other mother's blood taking nutrients to the placenta, the other mother's breast milk feeding the baby.

"Our embryo will just provide the building blocks for the recipient mother to grow a baby."

Deciding who to donate the embryos to, however, has been a difficult process, Amy says.

After posting on the Embryo Donation Network website, Amy received more than 20 responses from eager recipients within days.

"I would love to be able to help them all," Amy said. "But we can't, so we just have to use the information we have to help us decide who we can help."

For more information go to Embryo Donation Network or IVF Australia