Joel Cooke and Pru Hein with son Taylor (Image: Provided)

Thanks to Australia’s bungled vaccine rollout and the mutating COVID-19 virus, international travel remains a long way off. One group this is causing strife for is prospective parents.

Discouraged by the high costs of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and long waitlists for donor eggs in Australia, many Australians found getting treatment abroad was a more viable option. Now, hundreds of would-be parents can’t access their embryos stored in other countries, and can’t legally import them. Some families are campaigning for an end to the import ban and for early access to vaccinations for families-to-be.

Time is of the essence: the average age of mothers — both those starting families and those who have previously given birth — has been rising for some time as many parents choose to start families later in life. A 2018 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found that the highest percentage of women giving birth were aged between 30 and 34. The pandemic, coupled with the recession and lockdowns putting a strain on relationships is likely to further lower Australia’s 2019 birth rate of 1.66 births per woman. One in 25 Australian babies are now born via IVF.

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‘They’re our embryos’

Pru Hein is unable to conceive children traditionally. She and her fiancé Joel Cooke had their first child via IVF in South Africa in 2018. They have five other embryos in storage there, each using an anonymous egg donor, to give their son a little brother or sister.

Australia prohibits the use of anonymous sperm and egg donors, meaning the embryos can’t be imported. Hein told Crikey the clock is ticking: she is 38 and Cooke is 40. The risk of ectopic pregnancy is also a concern, which increases for women over 40 who use IVF.

Hein said she’s written submissions to the government and is working with her local MP to temporarily lift the ban on importing embryos from overseas due to COVID-19. She said while she understands children have a right to know their roots, Australian legislation was so stringent and costs so high that many families like her own had no choice but to turn abroad.

“There are many women in the same situation as me,” she said. “They’re our embryos. They belong to us so there should not be a reason why they can’t be brought back to Australia.”

Hein also thinks prospective parents should be able to get vaccinated to travel abroad for IVF.

No choice for many

Egg donation is a tough process. Donors have to take medications to stimulate production, which often has side effects including nausea and fatigue, before their eggs are harvested with a fine needle and suction under local anaesthesia. In Australia it is illegal to buy or sell human blood or tissue, and donors can only be compensated for their medical fees.

Although many aspects of IVF are publicly funded through Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the sector isn’t government-regulated like blood and organ donations. There’s no public egg bank. Parents have to rely on private clinics which often have wait times of months or years and charge high fees.

There’s no data on how many Australians travel abroad for IVF, though there’s evidence it’s increasing in popularity.

After signing up for a private clinic in 2018, Hein only recently heard back from them with availability, and will only be able to choose from a limited list of potential donors with an initial cost of $20,000.

In South Africa, she had more egg donors to choose from and her first conception cost around $12,000 — including accommodation, flights and follow-up. South Africa has similar laws around selling biological matter, meaning the donor was only compensated for her medical fees.

Surrogacy advocacy organisation Growing Families founder Sam Everingham told Crikey he knew of hundreds of couples who were unable to access their embryos, causing distress. He has previously worked to get travel exemptions for parents using international surrogates so they could meet their new baby, but is struggling to get exemptions for parents who wish to conceive abroad.

“We just say we’re a best practice country here but [our legislation] pushes many mums overseas,” he said. “It’s stupid.”

A question of ethics

Surrogacy lawyer Sarah Jefford says there are good reasons behind the ban on anonymous sperm and egg donors. “People want to know about their donor siblings, how many there are or where they’re from,” she said.

Some people find out they were the product of a donation well into adulthood through online DNA sites, causing family rifts and trauma, while others discover they have dozens of siblings from the same donor, causing anxiety about forming romantic relationships. Others, Jefford says, wanted to know their ethnicity, medical history and learn more about their traits.

“They just want to know some information about their genetic heritage, not just for themselves but for their own offspring,” she said.

Most Australian states and territories limit donors to contributing to five families, including their own.

Jefford believes that to solve the long waitlists, egg donors should be modestly compensated for their time. The government should also set up a regulator to oversee the sector — though she adds that when designing legislation, the conceived child’s rights should always be the focus, not the parents’ or donor’s.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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