When Merewyn Hines was 25 she decided that come hell or high water, in 10 years, she’d have a kid. With whom was not really a concern. Like generations of women before her, she knew the man’s part could just be a technicality.
After four years of undergoing various fertility treatments, Hines, now 40, has a boisterous two-and-a-half-year-old daughter conceived via donor sperm. It cost her much more than she anticipated — over $60,000— but she doesn’t regret a thing.
“Ever since we’ve been able to freeze sperm, there’s been a demand for artificial insemination — it’s been decades,” says Dr. Jeff Roberts, president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society.
He says there’s been an uptick in the number of women choosing to conceive with donor sperm every year, although it hasn’t been “an explosion.” While he estimates a standard practice might treat two to three women per week, Dr. Jason Hitkari, co-director of Vancouver’s Olive Fertility Centre, says he treats about 30 patients per month.
As can be expected, the age of these women is edging closer and closer to 40.
“The average age of the single women I see is 37,” Roberts says. “They’re either women who don’t have a partner and want to have a kid, or women who already have kids and want another one on their own. Regardless, they’ve usually educated themselves on what’s involved and are ready to go ahead.”
In most cases, delaying parenthood boils down to money (along with other factors like staying in school longer and wanting to establish a stable career), but for some women, that’s a minor obstacle when the priority is having a child.
Hines was one of the smart ones: because she knew what she wanted, she started putting money aside in her “baby fund” early on. By the time she was 34, she had saved enough to start the process.
“I started with $40,000 and because I was working through the years [of attempted conception], I was replenishing what I spent with every pay cheque,” she says. “I also stopped contributing to my RRSPs and didn’t put money aside for vacations. If I did go on a vacation, it was usually backpacking trips around B.C. Every extra bit of money I had went to the baby fund.”
While Hines went through more fertility treatments than she had anticipated — seven cycles of intrauterine insemination and three cycles of IVF including ICSI, a process in which a single sperm is injected into the egg before implantation, and which comes at an extra cost — the average costs for single women looking to conceive via donor sperm are considerable.
It starts with the donor sperm. Roberts estimates that samples cost from $700 to $1,000 per vial (but it’s advised that women purchase two to three vials to account for failed attempts and to have some left over should they decide to try for a second child), then there are administrative costs in getting the sample to the clinic, which range from $200 to $300. Storage fees are another $200 to $300, and insemination costs anywhere from $300 to $500.
Judging by those numbers, in the best-case scenario, it would cost $1,400 in one month. But if IVF and ICSI are required, in addition to the fertility drugs that normally accompany that kind of treatment, a woman could be looking at $10,000 to $17,000 for just one attempt.
“I find that people try to afford it in different ways,” Hitkari says. “They’ll take a line of credit or borrow from their parents. And parents will often help because they’re interested in their kids’ well-being and happiness, and they want grandchildren. People will find a way to afford it.”
However, doctors still take their patient’s situation into consideration.
“When I’m trying to get a woman pregnant and she’s single and her family is on the other side of the continent, I don’t want to be giving her twins,” Roberts said. “So we do everything we can to minimize the risk of multiple gestation, because that’s not just hard medically [because there’s a higher risk for miscarriage] but also financially.”
Then there’s the social aspect of single motherhood. A woman raising a child (or children) alone is certainly nothing new, but if finances and community are in short supply, it could create a very isolating life.
“We see single moms who are very poor and overworked, but their needs are more than just financial,” says Madison Thomas, program manager of MOMS Canada, a non-profit organization in Alberta that supports single mothers. “They need community support for help outside of their financial perspective. Many of these women are lonely, depressed and isolated. It’s a common theme.”
While Hines doesn’t face the same financial difficulties as many other Canadian single mothers (the Canadian Women’s Foundation says 21 per cent of single mothers in the country live in poverty), she does feel the pressure of raising her daughter on her own.
“I think I miss the idea of a partner more now that I have a child rather than when I was going through the process of getting pregnant,” she says. “Everything that happens now is on me. I don’t have the flexibility to explore a career change because that could mean there’s no income. It would have been nice to have the emotional support before, but now it’s more about having someone who could be there and help with the finances.”
Despite these obvious concerns, there is no definitive demographic profile of Canadian women seeking to get pregnant on their own. Both Roberts and Hitkari say that they see women from all socioeconomic, cultural and racial backgrounds seeking donor sperm. Mainly because it’s a much more affordable option than freezing and storing their eggs (which runs about $8,000), and doing IVF at a later date.
Plus, there’s the conviction that comes with the desire to be a mom.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Hines says. “All the money and procedures and emotional stress — it was worth it. I don’t think I’d have a second child, but knowing now everything I’d have to go through to have her, I’d definitely do it again.”
That’s the kind of attitude that comes at no cost.