When baby makes two
A dozen women, all single and in their late 30s and early 40s, are sitting in a church hall in Richmond on a Tuesday morning, sipping tea and talking about the drought of available good men.
''Perhaps we could get one between us - a really good 'tradie' - and swap him around,'' one woman suggests, to general laughter.
This is a mother's group, but a unique one: all the women have used, or are hoping to use, IVF or anonymous donor sperm to have a child on their own.
Forty years ago, it was shameful to be a single mother in Australia; it was 1973 before the federal government introduced a payment to ''unmarried mothers''. Now, one in five children is raised by a single parent, and women head almost 90 per cent of one-parent families. The break-up of relationships is the main reason women are raising children alone, but, with IVF and donor insemination now available, more women are choosing to become solo parents.
It is a huge social upheaval that has happened in a matter of decades, although the pace of change has been slower in Victoria. Until January 1, it was against the law for single women to receive IVF for so-called ''social'' reasons; if they had no medically defined infertility, they had to travel interstate for treatment. In anticipation of the change, this new breed of would-be single mothers started coming to Melbourne IVF's Single Mums Support Group last year.
Group secretary Leanne Haynes, 42, of Fawkner, says the women have the same worries as any solo parent: how to cope, how to get support, and whether the child will be disadvantaged if he or she has no father.
The mother of three-year-old Margaret, Ms Haynes had her IVF treatment in Melbourne because she was eventually diagnosed as medically infertile. At first, she was refused treatment on the grounds of social infertility. So, beginning in December 2002, she flew to Sydney every month for insemination with donor sperm - a relatively simple technique compared with IVF, but one with a success rate of about 17 per cent per menstrual cycle, or less.
Her nine treatments, at a cost of $1000 each, all failed, a misfortune that made her eligible for help through Melbourne IVF.
Ms Haynes' journey is a common one. When she was dating in her early 30s she realised she was ''interviewing men as potential fathers'' rather than looking for a soul mate. She felt it wasn't right to have a relationship with a man simply because she wanted a child. As her desire for motherhood grew, the idea of a donor father seemed more rational - and moral.
''People kept saying 'why don't you just have a one-night stand?','' she says. But she welcomed the opportunity to obtain detailed medical information about her child's prospective father - not an option in a late-night bar.
Ms Haynes' IVF journey was longer and more difficult than it will be for many in the support group. The primary school teacher was 37 when she started at Melbourne IVF in November 2003.
In November 2005 she underwent her 15th embryo transfer. At 38, she was pregnant. In July 2006, aged 39, she was a mother.
''I kept thinking it was a dream,'' she says. ''I had had so many negative [test results] that I couldn't believe it. I thought I was going to wake up until I felt that kick, from inside.''
The women in the support group worry they will be accused of selfishness in having a child without a father. Ms Haynes reminds them that many women start out as partnered but end up as single mothers and that her experience as a teacher has shown her that some children are poorly served by ''intact couple'' parents, or sustain extra damage when their families split.
''[My daughter] Margaret is not from a broken family,'' she says. ''Her family [which includes her live-in grandmother] is complete.''
Because Medicare does not rebate treatments for women who are not medically infertile, these women will pay close to $12,000 for their first IVF cycle - the most expensive one, because it also entails the harvesting of eggs and the freezing of embryos. A medically infertile woman having the same treatment, but with Medicare and private health fund rebates, will have out-of-pocket costs of about $2000.
The Medicare exclusion is discriminatory, according to Dr Gareth Weston from Monash IVF, who sees two to three of these would-be single mothers a month. He says cost is deterring women from seeking treatment, and some are investigating their fertility in the hope that a medical test may reveal that they are ''lucky'' enough to suffer from endemetriosis, fibroids or some other problem that will define them as medically infertile.
''Most are highly educated,'' he says. ''But they are not the classic cliche of the mad career-driven executive selfishly pursuing her own career goals. They are in regular sorts of jobs. They have relationships that have just ended or that just haven't come together for them. And they don't go into this lightly. I always ask them about them, about their social network, and most have brothers, parents and friends who have all volunteered to help.''
Dr Weston's colleague, Associate Professor Peter Lutjen, medical director of Monash IVF, agrees that high costs mean that only a steady trickle, rather than a flood, of single women have come forward. He estimates that a few dozen socially infertile patients are now having treatment from Monash IVF's combined staff of 20 specialists.
Meanwhile, Melbourne IVF has been getting one inquiry a week. Dr John McBain, a fertility specialist at Melbourne IVF and head of reproductive services at the Royal Women's Hospital, says access to treatment is slowed by other impediments besides cost - a regime of police checks, Department of Human Services child welfare notification checks, and two compulsory sessions of face-to-face counselling that the new laws require of all IVF patients. But the clinic anticipates a growth in demand, and is advertising for more sperm donors.
In 2000, McBain was responsible for the Victorian government overturning its policy of restricting IVF to married couples. He successfully argued in the Federal Court that the law was inconsistent with the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act.
Debra Smith, 44, of Forest Hill, believes that the stigma surrounding single mothers' use of IVF has disappeared in the decade since Cardinal George Pell, then archbishop of Melbourne, slammed the decision to change the law as ''one more example of the growing trend in our society to treat children as commodities'' and ''a massive social experiment on children''. Ms Smith's daughter Jorja, 3, was even baptised in her local Catholic church.
''I have been really lucky in that everyone has supported me and Jorja,'' Ms Smith says. ''I've not had any negatives. I've been involved in a local mother's group and they have all accepted my situation without any hesitation.''
Ms Smith never planned on being a trailblazer. ''I always thought I'd get married and have children and go down the normal route that most women do,'' she says. In her late 20s, she was settled with a loving partner, who died in a car accident when she was 28, and in 2004 she was 39, partnered and pregnant. But when she miscarried, the already shaky relationship foundered.
Her desire for motherhood intensified. ''I thought I really want to do this, I am turning 40 next year. I was so heartbroken about losing a child but I knew that if I didn't do it soon I would never do it.''
Ms Smith chose an Albury clinic so she could drive up and back in a day. She kept her treatment a secret from her colleagues at the Department of Human Services, but her family knew and was supportive.
After her two insemination attempts failed, she was reclassified as eligible for treatment at Melbourne IVF.
She began IVF treatment in December 2005, at the age of 40. Six months later she was pregnant, and in March 2007, aged almost 42, she gave birth to Jorja.
At 44, Ms Smith has not given up on the idea of finding a partner.
''But you have a lifetime to find a partner. You only have a limited window to create the love of your life.''