By guest writer Rachel Faber.
You’d be amazed how many people – including healthcare professionals – have never heard of intra-partner IVF. For the uninitiated, intra-partner IVF, also known as Reciprocal IVF or Shared Motherhood – is when one partner donates eggs to her partner and is the “biological mother”, whilst the other partner carries the baby and experiences the pregnancy as the “birth mother”, or “Tummy Mummy”, as we like to call it! This enables motherhood to be a shared experience right from conception.
My wife and I started looking into our options for having children before we were married. We wanted to get an understanding of the process and potential timings so that after our wedding we could plan it – as much as you can plan these things. Our starting point was to go to our GP, where we were told we weren’t entitled to help as a same sex couple. Shocked and frustrated, we asked to speak to the practice manager, who told us we could access treatment, but only after three failed natural attempts at conception. No, we weren’t sure how that was meant to work either.
We took that conversation to mean that we would have to go for private treatment and, after three failures, go back to the NHS. No thanks. We then set about saving everything we could to allow us to be in a financial position to go private and set up an appointment with our clinic of choice as soon as we got back from our honeymoon.
We had previously used another clinic, which I am choosing not to mention as we didn’t have a great experience. This may have been unique to us so I would never want to inform anyone else’s choices. The clinic we had our three children through is called ARGC (Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre) in London’s Harley Street. Or, as we like to call it, the boot camp clinic. ARGC has the most incredible results, and that comes with not just a high price tag, but a much more intensive treatment plan. Every part of the process, including the drugs, is tailored to your body and its needs. Whilst it’s far from the glamour you might expect from such a prestigious London location – there are no expensive coffee machine or plush waiting rooms – the staff are meticulous and incredibly caring, something I know not all IVF patients are lucky enough to experience.
Whereas in a heterosexual couple the woman will undergo ovarian stimulation, egg retrieval, fertilisation and then, if treatment is successful, carry the baby, with intra-partner IVF, this process is split. When we had our first child, I went through the stimulation cycle, drugs and egg collection whilst my wife Miriam had her womb prepared and underwent the embryo transfer stage using the eggs collected from me. At the most crucial and intense part of the process, just before egg collection, we were having up to six injections, two blood tests and sometimes two scans a day. We felt like we lived at the clinic during treatment as we were there so much. It is an all-consuming treatment process, which is something you need to be prepared for.
The first time we had treatment at ARGC was pre-pandemic, so we could go every appointment together if we wanted. We pretty much lived in the Natural Kitchen on Marylebone High Street and you would often see other ARGC patients in there. During the most intense phase we could be in clinic at 7am and have to wait around until lunchtime to find out if we needed another blood test and/or scan. For this stage, I would recommend using any annual leave you can – it’s just too tricky to juggle with a full-time job. I would have to carry around my drugs with me at all times and inject in the bathrooms at work – God knows what people must have thought. After two failed cycles, we conceived our daughter, who is now three years old.
When we felt ready for another baby, we returned to ARGC to do the treatment again, this time the other way round. I would undergo an embryo transfer of Miriam’s eggs, fertilised using sperm from the same donor as our daughter so our children would have a complete biological link. Donor selection is another hugely important part of the process. We used London Sperm Bank but there are lots of options in the UK and abroad (though it’s possible that access to the latter has been affected since Brexit). We spent a long time ensuring we had someone who had not only similar ethnicities but also something (that je ne sais quoi, if you will) that felt like us. The donor we chose had very similar passions, work experience to us. In the UK I don’t believe you get the option of seeing pictures of the donor (we were very adamant we did not want this anyway) but I think in other countries you can. One of the most special things about our donor is that he and his wife had trouble conceiving so he wanted to help other people. It’s such a selfless act, especially as sperm donation is actually a very intense process these days.
Sadly, our first cycle failed, which really took its toll mentally and physically. Every time we had transferred one embryo, we experienced a negative result. We were very lucky in that we both got a good number of eggs and embryos from our respective collections, so transferred two embryos on the cycle that conceived our daughter. We decided to try two again. Obviously, transferring more than one embryo increases the probability of having multiples and, lo and behold, 10 days after embryo transfer, a pregnancy test revealed not only a positive result, but extremely high hGC levels. hGC, or human chorionic gonadotropin, is a hormone produced by the placenta, indicating you are pregnant. Generally, if levels over 50 signal pregnancy. With our first child, my wife’s initial blood test came back with hGC levels of 130. Mine came back as 590 – I was carrying twins! We still held our breath at that first scan as the sonographer identified 1 sac then another – let’s just say we were relieved to find out there wasn’t a third!
Our twins were conceived during the pandemic and this made treatment easier in the sense that we were working from home, but harder in terms of not being able to go in together for scans and blood tests etc. We lived in fear or another full lockdown in case it would jeopardise weeks of preparation or a crucial stage of the treatment.
When it comes to undergoing treatment, you need to be emotionally, physically, and, crucially, financially ready, especially if you are using ARGC. Realistically, you’re looking at costs of around £10,000 to go through one round of intra-partner IVF. We always agreed never to disclose how much we spent on our treatment or look at it in terms of the “cost” of our children now they are here.
Intra-partner IVF is definitely the more complex, expensive and demanding route to parenthood for same-sex couples, but being able to have a child truly created by you both is just magical. Conceiving a child this way really turns the nature vs nurture argument on its head too. People often comment on how much our children look like their birth mother, and we’ve also noticed so many mannerisms in the children that mirror the parent who carried, even though biologically, there isn’t a link. Another thing we have noticed is that when our babies cry, whichever one of us carried gets that gut-wrenching feeling, like a chemical reaction, in their tummy. It’s fascinating.
Now we are firmly in the chaos of three kids under three, going through treatment feels like a lifetime ago. As with so many fertility issues, intra-partner IVF is rarely talked about, so I hope that speaking about our experience we can help people understand the options available to them. If you want to reach out, you can find me on Instagram @twomummiesoutnumbered.