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Daddies be damned! Who are the British women who think fathers are irrelevant?
By Barbara Davies
31st October 2009
Having reached the age of 38 without meeting Mr Right, Karen Shefras decided to become a mother by using donated sperm.
As a result, Karen, who runs her own company, has never met her ten-month-old daughter’s father. The closest she came to him was at the clinic where five of her eggs were injected with sperm donated by the dark-haired and intelligent businessman.
‘Ideally, it would have been nice to have met a man and had a baby the conventional way,’ says Karen, now 41. ‘I always pictured myself getting married – but it just didn’t happen.
Controversial: A new law allows women to have sperm donor babies without a man in their lives
‘I grew up as part of a generation of women being told we had lots of choices. It never occurred to me that one day I’d be 30 and single, and before I knew it I would be 40 and single.
For women who find themselves in this position, having a baby via a sperm donor suddenly becomes an option.’
The story of how Karen brought her daughter Addie into the world – at a cost of £12,000 – is remarkable enough, but statistics suggest it is becoming more commonplace.
Latest figures from the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) show that nearly one-fifth of all women using sperm donors are single.
More often than not, these women are educated, middle-class, financially independent females who have succeeded in every area of their lives but have failed to find a husband to father their children.
On October 1, the law changed to reflect this growing trend by removing the requirement for single women to demonstrate that their sperm donor baby will have a father figure.
The Human Fertility & Embryology Act 2008 means that doctors no longer need to take into account the ‘need for a father’.
Instead, a woman requesting sperm must only demonstrate that any child will receive ‘supportive parenting’.
As leading fertility law specialist Natalie Gamble of Gamble and Ghevaert says: ‘The recent changing of the wording is designed to be welcoming to different family forms. Single women are now in no worse a position in establishing that they will be able to offer parenting just as supportive as heterosexual couples.’
Critics of the Act claim the change in law is another nail in the coffin of traditional family life. Others insist that it merely reflects the complex social make-up of Britain today.
Karen herself, who runs an exhibition management agency from her home in Twickenham, Surrey, admits that her position is not ideal, but argues that she made the best choice she could given her circumstances.
Like so many women of her generation, Karen pursued a career believing that it would bring her fulfillment.
‘I got so buried in work between the ages of 20 and 30,’ she says. ‘I was having fun, I suppose, but it was a false life. I got to 38 and everything was great, but I just felt so empty.
‘I’m not anti-man and I still hope to meet one. But due to my age, I did not have time to wait any longer.’
‘My brother had two children, which made me feel even more sorry for myself. Everything felt pointless and directionless in my life.’
Karen was 38 when, in her own words, ‘the truth really started to kick in’ and she decided to take control of her situation. ‘I realised it was now or never,’ she says.
‘I wanted children while my parents were still young enough to enjoy them. I had this fear of life passing me by, and them dying while I was waiting for something tohappen.’
In August 2007, she registered with the London Bridge Clinic and was put on their waiting list for a sperm donor. Her parents supported her decision.
‘My mum was completely overjoyed, and my dad said: “It’s a changing world. Why not?”
‘There were only a few people who said: “That’s not the correct way to do it.” And my answer to them was: “What is?”
‘I’m not anti-man and I still hope to meet one. But due to my age, I did not have time to wait any longer.’
By the time she had undergone all the medical tests required before treatment begins, Karen was at the top of the clinic’s list and given a choice of five donors.
The clinic provided details of the donors’ hair and eye colour, height and build, as well as occupation, education, hobbies and marital status. Some clinics even offer baby photos of the donor and audio recordings of interviews with them.
‘I wanted someone with similar colouring to my own,’ Karen says. ‘I didn’t want a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby, because I’m not. And intelligence was important to me. I opted for my donor because he sounded grounded and intelligent.’
In November 2007, Karen underwent intrauterine insemination, where donor sperm is injected directly into the uterus, but failed to conceive. A second attempt in December was also unsuccessful.
In desperation, she turned to in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Karen’s eggs were harvested from her ovaries and fertilised outside the womb.
‘They removed 14 eggs, and in the end they had five possible embryos. They put two back, so I could have had twins – but when I went for my eight-week scan, only one had thrived.’
Addie was born on December 17 last year by Caesarean section.
‘I was absolutely overwhelmed with love,’ says Karen. ‘Of course it would have been nice to have shared that moment with a man, but we don’t live in an ideal world.
‘People have accused me of being selfish – but there are lots of incredibly unhappy mothers and fathers out there. I am very contented and so is Addie. There is constant harmony in my flat.’
Karen says her job means she is able to support both herself and Addie, and she insists her daughter will have male role models in her life. ‘I have my brother, my dad and male friends. I have a wide social circle. She gets attention from them.
”For a number of women, the reality is that if they want to become mothers they will have to do it alone. The stigma of being a parent on your own is reducing.’
‘Perhaps if I had once been married and experienced that partnership, I’d feel that I was missing something more. But I don’t feel a big gap – I feel so complete with her.’
According to one gynaecologist the Mail spoke to this week, as many as 50 per cent of patients being given sperm at his clinic are single women or are in same-sex relationships.
Tim Child, consultant gynaecologist at Oxford Fertility Unit, says this high percentage can be explained partly by the fact that medical advances mean that traditional couples are less likely to need the assistance of a sperm donor.
But he admits: ‘We’ve certainly noticed an increase in requests from single women. Until October 1, we were required by law to ask about a male role model for the child. There was usually a brother, or a friend, or their father.
‘Sometimes single women would question why they needed to answer that, and we’d have to explain that it was a legal requirement. The change in the law means that we don’t have to go into as much detail. I actually think it’s a realistic change in light of society today.’
According to a spokeswoman for the Donor Conception Network, a quarter of the support group’s membership is now single women.
‘For a number of women, the reality is that if they want to become mothers they will have to do it alone,’ she says. ‘The stigma of being a parent on your own is reducing.
‘And women are generally more educated, more economically independent, more stable and confident, and therefore more able to make a decision that if they want to be mothers and can’t find a man to do it with them, they can go ahead by themselves.’
TV executive Ruth Rackham, 44, who became a single mother by choice four years ago, admits that her son’s need for a father-figure was ever present in her mind. She made the decision to become a mother at 39, having failed, like so many of her friends, to find a partner.
‘In every other area of my life, I had made conscious decisions about what I wanted. But when it came to what, potentially, was the most important thing of all, I was leaving it to chance.
‘I had tied in all hopes for children with the desire for a lasting relationship. It suddenly dawned on me that these two things might never coincide.’ Instead of using sperm from a registered clinic, she turned to a gay friend, who lives in Italy, for help.
She needed IVF to conceive, but was pregnant by her 40th birthday. Her son Luca, who has contact with his biological father when he visits from Italy, celebrated his fourth birthday this week.
‘Because I had a boy, I felt it was very important to offer my son a positive male role model’
‘Because I had a boy, I felt it was very important to offer my son a positive male role model,’ she says. ‘I felt uncomfortable about the idea of a boy brought up on his own with his mother.’
Then, two years ago, she met her husband Tim – and Luca now has two father figures.
‘My son has become incredibly attached to his stepfather, whom he calls Daddy, which is hard for his biological father, whom he calls Papa – but we all get on well together,’ says Ruth.
She admits that at the moment, though, the situation is somewhat confusing for her son.
‘Luca doesn’t understand the difference between biological and stepfather. I have tried to explain to him that Mummy and Daddy met after he was born.
‘We have to be very careful to let him understand in his own way, in his own time and keep it as simple as possible. I try to take my cue from what he wants to hear.’
Ruth, who lives near Aylesbury in Bucks, says she did not want to use an anonymous donor at that stage.
‘I was happy to have a known donor who wanted to help me in my attempt to conceive. I’d have felt uncomfortable using unknown donor sperm – but maybe if that had been my only option, it would have been different.’
Of the HFEA’s decision to remove from their latest regulations the requirement for a potential mother to demonstrate her baby will have a father figure, she says: ‘There’s a certain sadness in this.
‘The most important thing is supportive parents, whatever sex they are. But it’s undeniable that it must be a good thing for a child to have a hands-on relationship with both their biological parents.’
But for many women, the ideal remains out of reach.
Ruth adds: ‘I think that in the future there will be more sperm donor babies and more options for women over the age of 35. Many women are now starting to freeze their eggs.’
According to lawyer Natalie Gamble, the new Act is, in effect, simply rubber-stamping changes which have already taken place in society.
‘Family structures are becoming more diverse, women are taking more control over their procreation and doing it at the right time for them. The increase in single women deciding to have families on their own is just one aspect of that.
‘In the past, before clinics treated anyone, they had to consider the child’s need for a father. Historically, this was seen as a discouragement to single women, and for many years it was very difficult for single women to access treatment through licensed clinics.
‘Over the years, that policy has evolved. Over the past five years, women have already been able to access more treatment.’
BUT, of course, not everyone welcomes the changes. Sociologist Patricia Morgan, of the Institute for Economic Affairs, describes the new Act as ‘dreadful’.
‘It’s the feminist dream come true,’ she says. ‘I don’t think we’ve ever had this in history – the removal of the need for a father.
‘What are men meant to do now? If they’re not needed as responsible fathers, as providers, what is their role in life now? What is their status?
‘And even if these women can financially support themselves, what kind of family is it when the mother is out at work all day?
‘The implications of this law change are momentous. Nobody seems to have thought of the child here and what kind of future he or she will have.’
Women such as Karen and Ruth would no doubt be irritated by the suggestion that they are no better than impetuous and irresponsible teenagers who become pregnant.
Karen, who is hoping to have another baby next year using the same sperm donor, points out: ‘I do have small regrets. It would be nice not to have to worry about bringing in money.
‘It is hard being alone, but I don’t dwell too much on it. My life has taken the direction it’s taken. I feel very blessed to be a mother.’
But she admits to feeling anxious about the future.
‘There are moments when I think: “God, I hope she doesn’t react badly when she finds out.” I’m hoping it won’t be detrimental to her personality, but I come from quite a grounded family and I’m hoping that her surroundings and her upbringing will help her.
‘By the time she goes to school, I don’t think being a sperm donor baby will be such a strange thing. In the U.S., there are already thousands of donor children.’
But the most telling thing of all is that Karen still hopes to meet ‘Mr Right’ – a positive sign at least that having a baby without a man does not remove a woman’s emotional need for a life partner.
‘I really do hope a man comes along,’ she says. ‘I can’t see myself without a man for ever.’
In the end, perhaps the truth is that, for complete fulfillment, women need both a partner and children.
The most worrying question of all is why the most natural thing in the world has become so seemingly difficult to achieve, and why a generation of women have fallen foul of their dreams.