Getting fresh in the flesh: fresh sperm vs defrosted frozen sperm

Alice Ellerby and her lesbian partner want a family one day so they've started looking into their options. As an aerialist and performer Alice was inspired to create Mother Mother, a collaborative show about lesbians' experiences of becoming mothers. In part two of Alice's guest blog she gets a rare opportunity to see life being created in a fertility clinic.

We have decided that we are going to try and become parents next September. It seems ridiculous to be quite so specific because there is little chance that things will work out as we plan, as I was reminded when I visited a fertility clinic in Wales.

MotherMother2In my research for Mother Mother – a circus project I'm developing – I met with a brilliant and dedicated embryologist who is passionate about her work in helping people to conceive. I had the privilege of observing their team in the lab where I watched one of the senior embryologists perform an ICSI procedure (Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection). It was incredible to see the delicate work as a single sperm, carefully selected for its good qualities (nice shaped head, good swimmer) was picked up by a needle and inserted into an egg, which immediately enveloped it. I was watching the creation of human life. It was exciting, moving and inspiring, and I hoped that that fertilised egg might go on to be someone's child.

The most eye opening part of the day for me was looking at sperm under the microscope. A sperm sample had just come into the lab, literally through a hatch in the wall where someone on the other side had produced it. It was being examined in order to assess the man's sperm count. I looked through the miscroscope and it was amazing! There they all were, whizzing about in all directions, so full of vitality and purpose. I was impressed by their vigour! I then observed sperm that had been frozen and then defrosted. This is the sperm that is used in clinics for donor sperm treatments. The contrast was striking. It was a much less frenzied picture of activity. This is thought to be one of the factors that makes the difference between success rates for natural conception versus conception via donor insemination, although there is no scientific evidence for this yet. For a heterosexual couple trying to conceive, having sex when the woman is ovulating, in their first month of trying they have a 38% chance of pregnancy. Attempting to conceive through artificial insemination at a clinic using donated sperm that has been frozen then defrosted, there is a 14% chance of success (UK average success rate for Donor Insemination for lesbian women under 35). I would like better odds than that. It sent me into a bit of a spin. One way of improving fertility treatment might be to use fresh sperm, but sperm can only live outside the body for about 20 minutes, which isn't enough time for it to be screened for infections before it is used for insemination. Fresh sperm is only used in insemination treatments in a clinic when it is the sperm of the man in a heterosexual couple (specifically called intrauterine insemination). Even when you are a single woman or a woman in a same-sex couple seeking treatment with a known male donor, his sperm will still be frozen.

I was assured that, once the frozen sperm has been properly prepared for treatment, the difference isn't quite so marked. Although the chance with one cycle for donor insemination is low, after a few attempts things look more encouraging. Still, what with the low statistics plus other reasons such as the expense of fertility treatment and wanting the child to know the donor, I can see why there is a strong pull for many lesbian women to conceive outside a clinic. But the lack of regulation worries me. My biggest fear is that the relationship with the donor might break down and he might have a claim to our child. And so the endless deliberation continues. At least until September when we will have to have reached a decision.

For a detailed explanation of the terms used in fertility treatment and how to ask for the relevant information for lesbian couples, see our article: How to Choose a Clinic

To read Alice Ellerby’s journey so far click here

To read more about Mother Mother click here

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