Like any bride-to-be, Cara Harrison was beside herself with excitement as she walked down the aisle. Not only was John the love of her life, he was also, she naively assumed, about to become the father of their much longed for children.
“Our dream was to start a family immediately – we were both healthy so we had no reason to suspect we would have fertility problems,” says Cara.
“For the first few months when nothing happened we didn’t worry, but after a year of failed pregnancy tests we sought medical advice.”
Over the next 12 months the news from doctors was always the same: “Everything seems fine, keep trying.“
“We tried to conceive naturally for four years before we were finally told IVF was our best chance. I felt angry and frustrated we had ‘wasted’ four years, but I was full of hope. It was inconceivable we wouldn’t conceive!”
Over the next three years Cara and John underwent four cycles of IVF using their own eggs and sperm, with nothing to show at the end but broken hearts and empty bank accounts.
“Before we started our first IVF cycle we’d decided we could afford, financially and emotionally, three attempts, so despite the crushing disappointment of the first failure, we quickly planned the next cycle,” Cara says. “And I did get pregnant, only to miscarry at seven weeks.”
The couple took a break before their third and likely final attempt. “My fertility team were optimistic of a successful outcome because I had shown it was possible to get pregnant,” Cara remembers.
Sadly, the much longed-for blue line didn’t appear.
For John, their journey to parenthood was to end there. “We’d had the three cycles of IVF we’d agreed upon, and I didn’t want us to risk further heartache,” he says.
It was the first time they hadn’t been in total agreement about parenthood, but Cara couldn’t let go of her dream and wanted one more try.
“I didn’t become pregnant on our fourth attempt and doctors advised further treatments would be futile. Our dream was shattered,” she says.
Their siblings, on the other hand, were all fertile. “During the course of our struggle I became an aunty to 11 gorgeous nieces and nephews, but I couldn’t enjoy them properly because my own bereavement was so great,” says Cara. “I was jealous when friends announced they were expecting. I started to avoid pregnant friends because it was too hard to look at bumps and be reminded of what I couldn’t achieve.”
During research into alternative roads to parenthood, Cara discovered embryo adoption, an IVF procedure for couples who cannot become pregnant with their own eggs and sperm. The donated embryos may come from couples who have completed their families via IVF and wish to offer the same opportunity to other couples. In other cases, embryo adoption involves creating a new embryo using genetic material from selected egg and sperm donors, when the couple is matched to donors with similar physical characteristics.
Initially Cara and John dismissed the idea because they wanted a baby that was genetically theirs. “We were too emotionally spent to consider all the ethical implications, so we took a year off the fertility merry-go-round,” Cara says. “But I still could not accept that I would never be a mother so I began to investigate adoption.”
“This exploration became an important bridge because, while I finally accepted that I could love a child that wasn’t biologically mine, I still felt a desperate need to be pregnant and give birth. Now I was ready to consider embryo adoption more seriously.”
The couple did extensive research and found a clinic in the Czech Republic with a very high success rate. “Once I had demonstrated we had exhausted other IVF options they agreed to begin embryo adoption immediately.”
Known down under as “embryo donation”, the procedure is widely available, but legislation is different from some European countries.
For Cara and John, the emotional, physical and ethical journey that took them to the Czech Republic was hard but worth the end result.
“Compared to conventional IVF, the embryo adoption was simpler, with far fewer drugs and no painful egg harvesting,” says Cara. “They quickly matched us with male and female donors for hair and eye colour, blood group, height and weight and created our embryo.
“We travelled to the clinic for implantation and began the agonising wait to see if the treatment had been successful. Having taken hundreds of tests over the previous 10 years we could not believe our eyes when we saw the elusive blue line. I did five more tests to be sure!”
While the idea of embryo adoption was initially difficult for some friends and family to accept, it all paled in significance when baby James arrived.
“I hope people will open their minds eventually because for some couples it’s the last hope,” Cara says. “There were many times over the last 10 years when we did almost give up, but our precious son was definitely worth the wait.”