For women struggling with infertility, the dream of becoming pregnant, feeling a baby grow inside, and delivering life into the world can be all too elusive.
When advanced maternal age or low ovarian reserve make getting pregnant near-impossible, egg donation is one solution that allows a woman to experience pregnancy.
Families can find information about the donor egg process online and should consult with their doctors if this is an option they are interested in pursuing.
How the process works
Once a woman and her doctor have determined that other assisted reproductive technologies are not promising, she should examine her feelings about using a donated egg.
A donated egg means giving up her genetic ties to the baby, but still being connected to the child as its mother. Some women may have a friend or family member willing to donate, while others prefer an anonymous donor from a reputable egg bank.
For those who select a donor whose eggs are not yet retrieved—a friend, family member or local anonymous donor—there is a lengthy process. The donor and the recipient mother must synchronize their cycles so that the timing of the procedure will work.
The donor takes hormones to stimulate egg production and undergoes the egg retrieval procedure. The recipient mother also takes medications to prepare her body for pregnancy.
Some downsides to this process are the unknown variables: how the donor will respond to medication, how many eggs she will provide, and whether those eggs will be viable.
With frozen donor eggs, many of the steps are already accomplished. A mother can search for a prescreened donor who meets her criteria for education, ethnicity and other characteristics, and the eggs are already frozen and available to be shipped to the fertility clinic.
In this case, the mother must take hormones to prepare the uterine lining for pregnancy, but she does not synchronize her cycle with another woman’s.
One consideration is ensuring that the eggs are frozen using a best practice called vitrification and that the fertility clinic has expertise in thawing vitrified eggs. In vitrification, doctors flash freeze donated eggs, instead of using older, “slow freeze” technology, which potentially allows ice crystals to form and damage the eggs.
Regardless of the source of the eggs, once they are delivered, the clinic will fertilize them using the father’s or a donor’s sperm. After that, the eggs are cultured for a few days before the doctor implants them into the mother’s womb.
This process averages upwards of six months for fresh donated eggs, or about four weeks for frozen donor eggs.
How it compares to other options
Using a donor egg to become pregnant is nearly identical to traditional IVF. With traditional IVF, the mother must go through the process to retrieve her own eggs, which are then fertilized, cultured and implanted.
However, women with low ovarian reserve may be unable to produce enough eggs for a successful IVF cycle. Women over age 35 are also at a higher risk of their eggs having chromosomal abnormalities, which adversely affects a woman’s ability to maintain pregnancy.
Financially, using a donor egg for IVF is more expensive than traditional IVF, but using a frozen donor egg often is about half the price of using a fresh donor egg.
Gestational surrogacy is another option for those wishing to expand their family when the mother either has a medical condition that precludes her from carrying a baby or she simply does not want to.
With a gestational carrier, either the mother’s own eggs or a donor egg may be used, and the carrier would undergo IVF in order to become pregnant. In these cases, the family pays a fee for the carrier as well as her medical care during pregnancy.
Adoption is another way to expand a family. Unlike using a donor egg, with adoption, the mother would not carry the baby during pregnancy, and the adopted child could be any age.
An adopted child does not share any genetics with the adoptive parents; with an egg donor, the mother will forgo a genetic tie, while the father may be genetically connected. As for timing, the wait for an adoption can vary widely based on the parents’ wishes, but it can take between several months and several years.
While there is no right or wrong way to start a family, a donor egg could be the key to experiencing the joy of pregnancy for women who long to put infertility behind them.