OLDER MUMS AND DONOR EGGS: WHAT HOLLYWOOD ISN’T TELLING US
Less than five per cent of women over 40 can use their own eggs in IVF. Is Hollywood promoting a fertility myth for older mums? By Anna Magee
Melanie Belhorn* was never in a hurry to settle down and have a baby. There was plenty of time, she thought – look at celebrities such as Holly Hunter and Jane Seymour who have babies well into their 40s.
At 43, she met her partner. They began trying for a baby and Belhorn realised how wrong she had been. After a year, she still wasn’t pregnant. Her GP said fertility treatment was her only option.
“I called the fertility clinic and was told: ‘At your age, you will need donor eggs.’ I didn’t even know what donor eggs were.”
Four years later, at 47, Belhorn finally fell pregnant with repeated IVF treatments and donor eggs from a younger relative. She had spent $28,000.
“I wish I had known earlier how difficult it is for women to fall pregnant in their mid or late 40s,” Belhorn says. “Celebrities make late motherhood look so easy. I thought, ‘Of course I can do that too’.”
Belhorn was not the only woman who thought she had time to spare. A Fertility Society of Australia study found over half of childless women aged 30 to 49 believed they could conceive whenever they wanted to.
According to fertility experts, this is partly due to the fact that women are bombarded with images of celebrity mothers in their late 40s.
Holly Hunter had twins at 47, Beverly D’Angelo conceived at 49, Geena Davis became a first-time mum at 46 and last year Kelly Preston fell pregnant at 47. None of these women say they used donor eggs.
While no-one knows what the circumstances of each individual pregnancy are, and it is possible for older women to conceive naturally, Associate Professor Mark Bowman, medical director of Sydney IVF, says: “In the 25 years that Sydney IVF has been operating, no woman has ever taken a baby home at 45 or over using her own eggs.”
Even at 40, the chances of a woman falling pregnant through IVF using her own eggs are less than five per cent, he explains.
“The units they have in the US aren’t any better than ours – we use the exact same technology. When I see a celebrity saying they conceived over the age of 45, in my opinion it’s highly likely donor eggs were involved.”
It is possible some celebrities have fallen pregnant using eggs they had frozen when they were younger, though none of them have admitted to this either.
It is possible to conceive naturally over the age of 45, as public cases such as Cherie Blair, who conceived her fourth child, Leo, at 45, or Deborah Thomas, the editor of the Australian Woman’s Weekly, who became pregnant for the first time at 45, have demonstrated, but experts stress these are exceptions to the rule.
“Such cases are very rare,” Associate Professor Bowman says. “The trouble is, they are also very public. As a result, while the women I see for IVF treatment are often aware that their fertility declines with age, they also point to such cases and say, ‘It can’t be that hard, she did it.’ But it’s rarely made clear in the press that these woman are by far the exception to the rule.”
Dr Gillian Lockwood, fertility specialist and author of Fertility And Infertility For Dummies (Wiley), says, “People are seeing these Hollywood actresses giving
birth in their mid-40s. It perpetuates the myth that if you keep looking young on the outside, you’ll be able to reverse the changes on the inside. You can’t.”
When talk-show host Larry King asked Cheryl Tiegs in 2000 if she had used donor eggs to conceive the baby she had using a surrogate mother, the 52-year old said emphatically, “No, it’s my eggs and my husband’s sperm and they’re our babies. I have been taking care of myself for so long, I know my reproductive organs are much younger than I am.”
Dr Lockwood says: “Your ovaries don’t know if you have been going to the gym for the last 10 years. Your ovaries don’t know if you have had Botox. Your egg quality declines dramatically after the age of 40 and there is nothing – other than using donor eggs – you can do to change that.”
One in six Australian couples will suffer infertility and three million Australians will take more than 12 months to fall pregnant. Despite this, the Fertility Society of Australia study found 43 per cent of women aged 40 to 49 believed they would be able to have a child without any problems.
Celebrities may have lifestyles that are different from the rest of us, but biologically, they are the same, Associate Professor Bowman says. ‘The monthly chances of conceiving in your early 30s is 20 per cent per month, by 35 it’s about 15 per cent and by 40 that has dropped to 10 per cent. At 45, however, your chances of conceiving a baby using your own eggs are almost zero.”
For most women whose 40plus eggs are no longer viable, their only chance of falling pregnant will be through the use of a younger egg donor.
In Australia, egg donation – which is still relatively uncommon but on the rise – is done “altruistically”. This means it is illegal for donors to be paid or for those seeking donated eggs to advertise.
“As a result, there is a great shortage of donor eggs in Australia and most women who need donor eggs will recruit their donor from close friends or family,” Associate Professor Bowman says.
No magic bullet
So is there a magic bullet that can restore the health of our eggs?
“Poor lifestyle choices, cigarette smoking, poor diet and stress will make fertility decline faster,” Associate Professor Bowman says. “But nothing will restore hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary development. Women are born with all the eggs they’re going to have and the reproductive quality of those eggs will decline with age. Going to the gym won’t restore the age of your eggs. That’s the biological reality.”
Belhorn says: “There is a conspiracy of silence when it comes to the use of donor eggs by celebrities. I have not heard one famous woman admit to having used donor eggs to fall pregnant and I now know that, statistically speaking, many of them may have. It’s frustrating, a bit like when celebrities say ‘Oh, I never exercise, I eat McDonald’s every day and I am still a size zero.’ It’s patronising.” * Name changed
Kelly Preston fell pregnant in 2010 at 47 with her third child Marcia Cross had twins through IVF in 2007, at the age of 44
Jane Seymour had twins in 1995 after having two children in her 30s + For treatments that increase your chances of conceiving go to bodyandsoul.com.au Geena Davis had her first child in 2002, then had twins in 2004