Dream family: Suzy Heeks with Lachlan, Holly and Abigail, 5. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Australian women in their late 40s and even 50s desperate for a baby are increasingly travelling to Greece and Spain to get pregnant.
When women travel to Greece, they pay about $7600 for a donated egg and an in vitro fertilisation procedure, a third of the price to go through similar treatment with a donated egg in Australia.
Many women also make the trip because in Australia they are unable to receive donated eggs that cannot be traced.
Sydney reproductive scientist Denyse Asher, who works exclusively with women who need eggs, last year sent more than 90 couples and single women to Greece, Spain and South Africa for donations. Most patients were under 50, but one 53-year-old who went to South Africa had just given birth to a boy, Ms Asher said. Fairfax Media also knows of one women in her late 50s who became pregnant.
Comedian Mary Coustas, 49, raised the profile of older women travelling to Greece for egg donation after she gave birth to a daughter, Jamie, in November last year following miscarriages and the stillbirth of another daughter.
But some Australian fertility specialists warn not knowing the identity of donors could pose ethical and medical problems. In Australia, women must find a donor known to them and pay all medical expenses but are not allowed to buy eggs. But in Greece, young women are paid 1000 euros ($1500) to donate and many do it to make extra money for their families.
Ms Asher, who runs the Bondi Junction clinic Donor Eggs Australia, said the ''draconian laws'' in Australia and particularly NSW meant women often had no option but to travel overseas. In the 13 years she had been sending patients overseas, including young women who had undergone cancer treatment or started menopause prematurely, about 360 babies had been born, she said.
But Kee Ong, a fertility specialist at Monash IVF who does about 50 donor cycles each year at his Gold Coast clinic, urged women to consider finding a local donor rather than travelling overseas.
Monash IVF can import eggs from the US-based World Egg Bank at a cost to patients of about $20,000, or some of Dr Ong's patients find their own donors through the online forum Egg Donation Australia. In NSW, a central registry stores information about donors and babies born from donor eggs or sperm.
''We do not encourage the use of overseas donors as they do not satisfy legislative requirements and the most important thing is the unavailability of identifying information of the donor,'' Dr Ong said.
Gynaecologist Nikos Kanakas, the director of Embryoland in Athens, one of many clinics in the Greek capital offering egg donation, said he had seen an increasing number of Australian women in the past five years.
''We have many happy families in Australia who have come to our clinic for egg donation,'' Dr Kanakas said. Under Greek law, women can access IVF up until they are 50, although it is suspected some women hide their age to seek treatment.
Dr Kanakas said women in their 40s and 50s were not designed to be having babies. ''But you cannot say to a woman at 41, 42 or even 45, sorry you cannot have a baby,'' he said.
Ruth Pellow, a fertility nurse specialist who runs IVF Treatment Abroad in Athens, said each month she worked with at least three or four Australian couples or single women seeking egg donation treatment in Greece or Spain.
''There are more and more patients from Australia … when I started dealing with patients from Australia six years ago there was an occasional patient but that has been changing,'' Ms Pellow said.
The latest figures on assisted reproductive technology shows there were 961 donor egg cycles in Australia in 2011.
Donors helped her dream come true
Occupational therapist Suzy Heeks always dreamed of having children but as she approached 40 and was in a relationship with a man who did not share the same dream, she realised she would need to go it alone.
Ms Heeks used an Australian sperm donor and went through IVF to have her daughter, Abigail, 5. But she wanted Abigail to have siblings. After many devastating rounds of IVF, Ms Heeks was told that she had a very slim chance of falling pregnant with her own eggs, so she decided to travel to Greece and use donor eggs from the Athens clinic Embryoland. At 44, she fell pregnant with twins Holly and Lachlan, who were born on Christmas Eve last year.
''I wanted it to be anonymous, I didn't want to be living down the road from my donor,'' she said, adding the ''reasonable costs'' of Greece also appealed to her.
Ms Heeks, who has recently relocated from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast to be closer to her family, said she expected her children to ask some tough questions in the future, but she intends to be completely honest.
''There are some times of the year that are a bit tough, like Father's Day, but I just tell my daughter that I love her and she might one day have a daddy,'' said Ms Heeks. ''And I will always just tell them I am their mum, because I am.''