A couple from Edinburgh have told how they used human embryo donation to have children after a three-year struggle with sperm donation, egg retrieval and painful procedures.
Lisa and Jamie Kitching spent more than £50,000 at the Embryo Adoption Programme in Barcelona and now have two boys Joseph, aged six and three-year-old Leon.
Lisa, 35, who works as a personal trainer was taken aback when little Joseph recently announced that he wants to live in Spain.
She said: "There was something about the way he said it that was striking.
"It wasn’t as though he’d mentioned it because we’d been on holiday there or because we’d talked about it, but because he felt something deeper — a connection that he couldn’t quite explain."
The fact is Joseph and Leon, have an important connection to Spain. While Lisa gave birth naturally to both, with Jamie, 39, at her side, the couple have no genetic relationship to their sons.
They are the result of human embryo donation and were created in a Barcelona laboratory from anonymous egg and sperm donors.
"When I look at my boys, I want to say to them: “Oh my goodness, you have no idea how you came to be,” says Lisa. ‘"Joseph is dark with olive skin and brown eyes, while Leon is blond and pale like me.
‘We’ve started to explain to Joseph about the “special man and lady who gave us seeds to put in mummy’s tummy” and we’ll keep telling the boys as they grow up. It’s fascinating to think they were created thanks to the kindness of people none of us will ever meet."
Since the first procedure in Australia in the 1980s, human embryo donation has been a controversial fertility treatment with the procedure raising ethical and moral questions.
Should the child have a right to know their biological parents? What is to stop them meeting a genetic sibling one day and unknowingly falling in love? Do donors ever regret never knowing their children — or get a shock when unknown offspring later track them down?
Embryo donation involves couples ‘releasing’ unused embryos after their own fertility treatment is complete or, in some cases, egg and sperm donors donate separately and an embryo is then created in a lab. In the UK, no payment is offered, although egg donors can be paid ‘expenses’.
Before 2005, donors in the UK were allowed to give sperm, eggs or embryos anonymously. But a change in the law aimed at protecting children’s rights means donation here is no longer anonymous. The number of UK donors is no longer enough to meet demand, prompting families to go abroad where treatment is expensive and donors are usually anonymous.
Lisa and Jamie had been trying for a baby for over a year when tests showed a problem with Jamie’s fertility. ‘He was devastated,’ says Lisa. ‘But I reassured him that I loved him. I knew so little that I thought all he would have to do was take some medication to fix the problem.’
Doctors recommended IVF and the couple embarked on a three-year struggle with sperm donation, egg retrieval and painful procedures. Only once did it result in a pregnancy but, sadly, Lisa miscarried. It was then discovered there was also a problem with Lisa’s eggs.
"All the time we’d been thinking something was wrong with Jamie but a part of me was damaged too and I kept wondering if I’d ever be able to carry a baby," Lisa said.
"I suffered horrendously with anxiety, depression and mood swings. I felt I couldn’t tell anyone what I was going through. I couldn’t even face telling my parents. I’d put a smile on my face, but I was suffering."
Jamie researched clinics and came across the Embryo Adoption Programme at Institut Marquès in Barcelona.
Set up in 2004, it uses embryos left frozen by previous IVF patients. These patients have not specified how they would like the remaining embryos to be used, leaving them in the ‘custody’ of the clinic.
That means they can be used for research or as implants available to others looking to start a family. Its success rate is 57 per cent and around 1,000 babies have been born as a result, including Joseph and Leon.
In the rare event a donor calls the clinic to ask if a child has been born from their embryo, the clinic would tell them ‘yes’ or ‘no’ only.
"We’d talked about adopting but I had such a huge maternal drive to carry a baby,’ Lisa said. "We agreed if a child was surrounded by unconditional love, genetics wouldn’t matter.
"We provided photos of ourselves to the clinic so they could try to match our colouring and were told the hair, eye and skin colour as well as their height and what region donors were from.
"But we had no control over characteristics. The clinic decided which donor would be used. They have access to their medical history in case we need to check anything."
At a cost of £10,000 per cycle, the couple relied on their parents and their savings. The first two rounds failed but on the third, Lisa became pregnant.
She said: "When Joseph was born, we didn’t even know we were having a boy, let alone what he would look like.
"When he came out, I could see lots of dark hair. It was funny because people who didn’t know we’d had an embryo donation remarked how much he looked like Jamie. It was the happiest I’ve ever been."
Three years later, the couple returned to Barcelona for a sibling for Joseph. As there were no embryos left from the first donor, they used a new one and Leon was born in 2016. In total, the couple spent more than £50,000.
Lisa said: "The boys are our world and I often wonder about their donors.
"Joseph’s quirky personality and Leon’s fiery temperament must be from their biological parents. Sometimes I’m curious about what their biological mothers look like. But it’s important to us that the donation was anonymous and we’ll never know who they were.
"I’m confident my boys are not going to identify with anyone else being their parents. I have no concerns about them asking where they came from and I don’t believe they have any siblings out there as there were no embryos left. We’ll always be honest about their beginnings.
"But they will always know we are their mummy and daddy."
Experts consider honesty to be paramount between parents and donor-conceived children. Although little research has been done on the psychological impact of embryo donation, extensive research on sperm donor-conceived children suggests most want to know about — and often meet — their genetic families.
Eric Blyth, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield, said: "Donor-conceived adults and children do not like having information withheld from them.
"Historically the “accepted wisdom” was to discourage disclosure. But the fertility industry is slowly coming round to the opposite view."
Since the birth of her two sons, Lisa has started up Lisa K Personal Training – a personal training service tailored specifically for women on their fertility journey - in the hope that she can help and support others who are experiencing similar challenges to what she did.
She said: "Exercise was hugely important to me in helping me cope with both the physical and mental demands of assisted fertility treatment.
"Through Lisa K personal Training, I try to support others going through this process by creating an exercise programme they can use to help with their journeys – by allowing them to manage their BMI, weight gain, pain management, and nutrition.
"I also hope to be able to connect with people through the business and create an online community, where everyone can openly discuss their experiences.”
Lisa is also eager to champion a new policy which will help to support employees in the workplace if they are experiencing problems with their fertility.
“It wasn't until I had to commit to last minute flights to Barcelona that I confided in my Manager about what was going on.
"She was hugely supportive and would encourage me to block off dates in my diary whenever I needed.
"Although my Manager was fantastic, I did feel under pressure when other colleagues would ask where I had been. I hated that I had to tell 'little white lies', but my infertility was private to me and my husband, and at the time and I didn't want to share this with others.
"I think it would be incredibly helpful if there was a policy in place within workplaces which reassures employees that they will be supported if they are undergoing assisted fertility treatment – and processes to help to support them with taking time off work. It would definitely help to ease some the pressure you already feel."