When Jana Te Nahu Owen and her wife began their fertility journey, they never imagined that it was the start of a three-year battle to conceive.
Today is World IVF day. It’s also 15 months since our beautiful pēpi was born. I remember it well, it was like a surreal dream inside that operating theatre. Outside there was a global pandemic and Auckland City Hospital was in level four lockdown. I was dressed in a frumpy yellow surgical gown, matching hair net and shoe covers, feeling truly ridiculous. I looked over the top of the curtain at my wife on the operating table – scared, excited, overwhelmed – and was immediately shocked into the reality that this was actually happening, right now, after all this time. We were about to meet our son, OUR SON Awa, the first of three viable embryos created by IVF. Like many couples across Aotearoa, we had undergone a long, emotional and expensive fertility journey to get here.
Now let’s go back to the beginning. My wife, whom I’ll now refer to as “Māmā K”, is from Gisborne, a “Kai Tahu princess”, as she told me on our first date, the same date when we talked about having babies together.. Yes, we were the classic intense “U-Haul” lesbians (the second date is a U-Haul moving truck), discussing marriage and kids straight away. It’s not as crazy as it sounds: we had known each other for 15 years and were a “reoffend”romance after first hooking up at a scrumpy-fuelled punk gig in the early 2000s.
Fast forward to 2015. We’re in our mid to late 30s, older and wiser and with our shit somewhat together, both wanting to start a family. With our collective clocks ticking we set out early on on the fertility path, and contacted a local clinic to get our initial fertility tests done. This test is called an AMH (anti-mullerian hormone) and it tests your ovarian reserves – how many eggs you have. We also made this appointment early on because a friend had told us that the wait list for the public sperm donor registry was an incredible two years. At that initial appointment we were advised that finding a personal donor is a much better option because when you do eventually get to the top of the public list, you have only one or two donors to choose from – so don’t even think about being picky. And even worse, there’s a chance they might not be willing to donate to a same-sex couple. We left that appointment with blood test forms in hand, and a mission to find our own personal donor.
(A quick sidebar-plea to people who have sperm, please consider donating! We have a real need for it in NZ, and just think about how much goes to waste!)
After a lot of thought and consideration – otherwise known as stalking our male friends on Facebook – we composed a very awkward message to our future donor. Because how do you casually ask someone whom you haven’t seen in a while to literally make a whole life with you? “Hey! It’s been a minute! Can we have your sperm?” But an hour after we’d hit send we got a response – he was interested. Over a coffee at our local cafe, we found our own amazing donor whānau. Thank you Dan and Jess, we really couldn’t have asked for more loving, supportive people to come on this journey with us. Thank you for sticking with us through it all.
Right, so, we’ve got the eggs, and now we’ve got the sperm. Sounds like a done deal huh? Wrong! Little did we know that was just the start of a three-year rollercoaster ride.
A lesbian nurse friend of a friend supplied us with a DIY insemination “kit” (sidebar – if there are any other lesbians out there who are trying to conceive and want more information about this kit, get in touch). Supplies in hand, we got to work.
And it was work. With Māmā K tracking her ovulation by taking her temperature every morning, peeing on test strips, going on a strict fertility diet and taking herbal tinctures from a naturopath, we started our DIY inseminations. When the time was right, we would ask our donor if he had some “free time” that evening. Now I put that in quotes as he and his wife had a baby and a toddler and a business to run. I also put that in quotes because let’s be real here, “free time” meant a wank. And because he is an absolute legend, he always found time for us. We would wait for a text, and promptly be at his gate for pick up. As stealthy as a drug deal, he’d come out holding the stash under his coat and hand it to us through the window while we stayed in our car. The first time he put it in a small Glad sandwich bag, a terrible choice of receptacle which I do not recommend.
Fourteen months/ovulations later, we were back at the fertility clinic. After having no luck going down the DIY route, we wanted an appointment on the publicly funded fertility treatment list as we’d been told we could do this after 12 months of trying to conceive. Another huge WRONG!! At this appointment we were told “Sorry, for same-sex couples you have to have been trying to conceive – meaning having had treatment through the clinic – for 12 months first.”
We had the option of trying IUI (intrauterine insemination) of which we’d probably need to do multiple rounds. It was essentially what we had been doing at home – inserting the sperm right into the cervix (don’t ask for details, but I will say a headlamp was involved). And if that was unsuccessful,we’d need to try IVF.
As Māma K’s fertility levels had dropped by half by now, and we only had a 20% chance to start with, we decided to go straight into IVF. Off we went again, tracking cycles, blood tests, multiple injections, more tests, scans. We did two rounds of this, but both were cancelled before egg collection. Not knowing why, we visited our doctor who gave us the bad news: the few eggs that were maturing were not of good enough quality needed for IVF and we should stop trying.
This is news no one wants to hear. We were now faced with the realisation that we wouldn’t be having a lil’ Māmā K, with her Kai Tahu whakapapa and her beautiful green eyes. I remember looking out the window to watch the autumn leaves floating down from the big oak tree outside.
The doctor asked us how we wanted to proceed, and as we wiped away our tears we remembered her sister had offered to donate her eggs to us when Māmā K first got her low AMH results (again, no words. Thank you Sis!). We asked the doctor if we could try that.
(You may be wondering why we didn’t just use my eggs. I was happy to use mine, but we both wanted to have a baby each and for our pēpi to have each of our whakapapa. By using Māmā K’s sister’s eggs, we would get our green-eyed Kai Tahu pēpi.)
That’s when the doctor told us about ECART, the ethics committee for assisted reproductive technology that was created by the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology (HART) Act of 2004. He told us that if we wanted to use another person’s eggs we’d need to submit an application to this committee. Applications cost $3000 and there are a number of hurdles you have to jump over to get your application across the line.
The ethics committee minutes are anonymous and publicly available online. Here’s an excerpt from ours (bolding mine):
Application E18/128 for Creation of embryos, for reproductive purposes, from donated eggs and donated sperm
- Principle 4 (f) of the HART Act provides that ECART is required to consider and respect the needs, values and beliefs of Māori. In relation to this application the Committee considered the fact that the recipient woman has cultural grounds for wanting to use a family member’s donation.
- The Committee queried whether the recipient partner’s eggs could be used in treatment as the ACART guidelines that set out the requirements for ECART to consider in relation to the creation of embryos from donated eggs and donated sperm provide at 3(a)(ii) that each intending parent (where there are two) has a medical condition affecting his/her reproductive ability, or a medical diagnosis of unexplained infertility, that makes the creation and use of an embryo created from donated eggs with donated sperm appropriate. [Editor’s note: this rule was changed in September 2020 and no longer excludes prospective parents on this basis.]
- ECART can only make decisions in accordance with the guidelines. As the guidelines say that each intending parent must have a medical condition affecting his/her reproductive ability, or a medical diagnosis of unexplained infertility, ECART is not able to approve this application.
Our specialist was noticeably upset when she told us the news. She said she argued with the committee to try to get our case approved, but the only way it could pass would be if Māmā K submitted as a single person or if I had proven infertility. Let me translate that for you: the ethics committee ruled it more “ethical” for Māmā K to be a single person, or for me to undergo an invasive medical procedure – egg donation – than for our willing donor to use her eggs to create our baby.
Our specialist said our options were to either take it to the Human Rights Commission, which could take years, or for Māmā K to submit as a single person. We saw ECART’s ruling as discriminatory – racist, because it did not respect our wishes to carry our own whakapapa, and homophobic, because by not recognising the needs of a same-sex couple I was pressured to undergo an invasive medical procedure that I did not want.
We had a single day to make a decision on what to do, as the cut off for the next quarterly ECART meeting was the next day. Under duress, we reluctantly said yes, and Māmā K reapplied as a single woman – no really, we broke up overnight, promise!
I had a call from the clinic’s counsellor asking if I was OK with the decision we had made. To this day, I’m not sure what she expected me to say.
We got the application over the line with Māmā K as a single person. Her sister made us five fertilised embryos, three of them made it, and our first one was implanted successfully. Three years after beginning this journey, we were finally pregnant. It was around this time that we got the call that we’d finally made it to the top of the publicly funded treatment list.
I know many people who are reading this have a much harder story to tell, and are still trying to conceive. We see you. Or you may be reading this, not knowing that your friend, colleague, daughter or son might be going through this too – putting on a brave face at work, or when meeting your baby, or trying to be excited and happy for you when you tell them you’re pregnant, when they just want to run away and cry. It’s so hard to find the right words to navigate this terrain; it is so private, so emotional and women’s reproductive issues are so taboo.
But I wanted to tell our story, in the hope that it brings comfort or insight to other same-sex couples out there on their journey. Because as we found out, it is really hard to find out information on how the system works and what is relevant to us, since everything is designed and written for heterosexual couples. At the most basic level I hope the forms and paperwork at these clinics are updated so no one else has to cross out “Father” while the nurse nervously says “Sorry, we need to update these forms”. Yeah, you do.
We are still getting a case together for a complaint to the Human Rights Commission around our ECART application. Our hope is that the HART Act and ECART guidelines are updated to consider the realities of Aotearoa in 2021. But for now, we are just enjoying watching our special baby boy grow.