The planes are grounded and so are my dreams of motherhood: Like more and more British women, HANNAH NORRIS, 45, turned to a foreign fertility clinic for help. She had three embryos waiting — then came corona

  • Hannah Norris has three healthy embryos ready for implant waiting in America 
  • But she is stuck in London until pandemic is over and flights to the U.S. resume
  • Travel abroad for fertility treatment is growing due to advances in technology

Like many women on the cusp of motherhood, Hannah Norris is a bundle of worries. After years of costly and painful fertility treatment, she’s agonisingly close to her dream: she has three healthy embryos ready for implant.

The only catch? She is stuck in London and her embryos are in a fertility clinic in Washington DC. Until the pandemic is over and flights to the U.S. resume, motherhood is on hold.

‘I have no idea how long the wait will be,’ says Hannah, who at 45 is single and runs a food and restaurant PR company called Nourish. ‘I’m so close to being a mum but I’m still so far away. It’s gut-wrenching and frustrating in equal measures.’

Hannah is not alone. There are no official numbers, but travel abroad for fertility treatment is a market that’s growing thanks to advances in reproductive technology, competitive pricing and more permissive laws.

Hannah Norris, 45, (pictured) has three healthy embryos ready for implant in a fertility clinic in Washington DC but she is stuck in London

Commercial surrogacy, for example — paying a woman to carry a child — is illegal in most of mainland Europe, but not in America and Ukraine. (The UK permits surrogacy if not done for payment.) And there is a long waiting list for egg donation in the UK, but not in the U.S., where it is a business.

Spain is the most popular destination for IVF treatment with a woman’s own eggs, according to Fertility Clinics Abroad, attracting just over a third of applications from January to August 2019, followed by the Czech Republic (25.1 per cent), Greece (9.2 per cent), north Cyprus (8.4 per cent) and Turkey (7.2 per cent).

But having fertility treatment overseas requires extensive planning, medical screening, time and money.

For the women who embark on it, it’s often their final throw of the dice after years of heartbreak.

For Hannah, it has taken eight years to get this far. It began when she was 37 and a baby began crying on her train. She had spent the previous 15 years trying not to have a child. ‘I never wanted a baby. My business was my baby and I was busy building it up.’

But in the blink of an eye, something shifted. ‘I suddenly had this overwhelming desire to get out of my seat and comfort the baby.’ She began to long to be a mother. ‘I realised I was late to the party. All of my girlfriends already had children at primary school. But I thought, that’s fine. I am still young.’

She adds: ‘I had a big love in my early 30s and, actually, I fell pregnant and I didn’t keep it. I’d only just met him, I hadn’t set up my business, I hadn’t achieved the things I wanted to achieve, so I had a termination.

There are no official numbers, but travel abroad for fertility treatment (stock image) is a market that’s growing thanks to advances in reproductive technology, competitive pricing and more permissive laws (file image)

‘I don’t regret it: it was the right thing to do. But it was a lonely time in my life and it’s hard not to wonder if it’s somehow appropriate that I now have to fight hard for this baby. As women, we carry a lot of guilt.’

The relationship didn’t last and, since then, Hannah’s love life has been ‘diabolical’ — ‘So I thought, I’m just going to do this on my own.’

At first, her fertility journey was ‘kind of fun,’ she says, especially searching for a sperm donor.

‘I chose a carpenter from Copenhagen. My Jesus! He was gorgeous to look at and just wanted a bit of money to help raise his family.’

But at the best of times, IVF (where the egg is fertilised outside the woman’s body) is a drawn out process; not a single treatment but a series of medical and surgical procedures, made more complex if a donor egg and/or donor sperm are involved.

After five years on the rollercoaster of endless visits to fertility consultants, hormone injections and heartbreaking phone calls, Hannah was ready to give up.

‘I’ve had moments of absolute despair,’ she admits. ‘The kind where I’ve not been able to get out of bed. I was brought up to think that if you want something, you work hard and you go and get it. But you just cannot control this.’

She’d started, aged 40, with two rounds of donor insemination (using the Danish sperm donor) at a private clinic in a London NHS hospital, but it didn’t work.

A turning point was meeting Jake (not his real name), a neighbour, at a Christmas party in 2015.

For Hannah (pictured), it has taken eight years to get this far. It began when she was 37 and a baby began crying on her train. She had spent the previous 15 years trying not to have a child 

‘I told him what I was doing with Danish sperm, and he said: “Oh my God, if it doesn’t work out, will you call me? I am desperate to be a dad.”’ They have since become close friends. ‘He is gorgeous and has a beautiful relationship with his partner.’

In May 2016, Hannah started treatment with Jake as a ‘known sperm donor’, meaning he has no legal rights over the child.

‘A couple of clinics were getting hung up on the legalities, so we had an agreement drawn up by a lawyer,’ says Hannah. They then spent a year trying to conceive in every possible way without actually having sex.

‘We tried doing it ourselves — turkey basters, deliveries at midnight at my door — and none of that worked.’

They tried IVF. She had two rounds in 2017, which didn’t produce any genetically viable embryos. But her third round, in January 2018, was more successful.

‘I had three perfect embryos that had got to the five-day stage. We were thrilled! I was screaming down the phone to friends.’

The first embryo didn’t bed in. But in September 2018, after the second embryo did take, a test confirmed she was pregnant. ‘I thought, I’ve got my baby now.

‘It was a bit of a faint line [on the pregnancy testing stick], which probably should have been my first sign. But I felt pregnant and kept testing with a digital stick every week. On the day I properly miscarried, it said, “pregnant four to five weeks”.

‘I had to sit in a room with another patient giving me her tissues. I had no privacy. It was the most awful thing.’

While some countries are relaxing travel restrictions, England is in lockdown until December 2 and any international travel is restricted (grounded planes at Gatwick Airpot pictured)

Hannah took her third embryo and sperm to a new clinic in London, where it was transferred but ‘just melted away’.

In April 2019, aged 43, she had another failure — this time, with another IVF round which didn’t produce any eggs to fertilise. Her consultant was blunt. ‘He said: “It’s your age.”’

At this point, Hannah decided to use an egg donor, meaning that any baby would not be her biological child.

‘There is a part of me that feels sad I won’t be able to say, “Ooh, you’ve got my granny’s eyes,” or whatever but, to be honest with you, it’s not a big deal.

‘Besides,’ she adds, ‘every cell in your body builds that baby.’

It was around this time that her GP told her about Shady Grove, a fertility clinic outside Washington, D.C.

‘Shady Grove is a bit of Mecca for women like me who are looking for egg donors with IVF. We’re not good in this country at egg donation. Friends have been on a waiting list for 18 months. Women in America are well paid to donate eggs.’

A further appeal of a U.S. clinic is that she ‘wanted to put distance between me and the egg donor and limit the risks that my child could meet a half-brother or sister and fall in love with him or her.’

Most importantly, Shady Grove offered a good deal: $36,500 (£27,500) for six rounds of IVF (with donor sperm and donor egg). Plus, money back if it doesn’t work. In the UK, just one round with a donor egg can cost more than £10,000 (with no refund if it doesn’t work).

Hannah remortgaged her home to raise the cash. She estimates she has now spent about £100,000 on fertility treatment, not including plane fares.

In July 2019, she flew to the Washington clinic. ‘The consultant marked out in my womb where he will put the embryo.’

Hannah took home the drugs needed to prepare for the transfer and did an endometrial receptivity test (ERA) in London to pinpoint the optimal time in her cycle for the embryo to put in.

In September, she chose her egg donor — a 24-year-old, part-Native American, ‘a lovely country girl’ — having already had Jake’s sperm sent to the States.

By November, she was the nearest she’d ever been to becoming a mother, with three high-quality embryos in cold storage at the clinic, waiting to be transferred into her womb.

Because her embryos have been created from the eggs of a young woman, her chances are higher than they’ve ever been. The embryos were due to be implanted in January this year.

She paid for flights and a hotel, but her menstrual cycle suddenly went haywire and she had a period two weeks early.

It meant the trip had to be cancelled as she had missed her implantation window, when the uterus lining is at the optimum thickness for pregnancy. She lost £1,200 (on flights and hotels).

Never mind, she thought, I’ll go again in spring — but, by then, Covid-19 was making headlines and countries began issuing travel restrictions. On March 11, the U.S. closed its borders to most of Europe and flights to Washington were cancelled.

She frantically emailed the clinic but, like everywhere else, it was closed. She drove to the American Embassy in London and contacted the British consulate in Washington. No one could help.

What had seemed like a temporary problem started to feel like a tragedy.

A friend suggested a new plan: Hannah would fly to Washington via Barbados. ‘If you are Covid-free when you arrive and stay Covid-free for two weeks, you can enter the U.S.,’ she explains.

Hannah lined up the flights and hotel and set a provisional date for the embryo transfer: December 16. She had the drugs needed to prepare for the transfer, and booked into the only IVF clinic in Barbados for pre-transfer scans.

‘Then I got an email from the clinic saying they were nervous because my blood pressure was too high,’ she says, explaining that she thinks ‘it’s gradually got worse with anxiety.

I have this permanent feeling of doing an exam. There is nothing quite like IVF anxiety: you have science (procedures in clinics, people in white coats) and you have agonising emotion. Add lockdown and it’s sent me over the edge.’

Her business has also been hit. ‘I’ve lost two major clients, so I’ve either not paid my mortgage or paid a reduced amount.’

High blood pressure, sadly, is a risk to the mother and baby. ‘The clinic said they are not willing to let me pursue it [the IVF process] at the moment.’

On top of this devastating news, the latest advice from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is that British nationals cannot enter the U.S. if they have been in the UK or Ireland within the previous 14 days.

Suddenly, like many other would-be mothers worldwide, Hannah found herself thousands of miles away from her chance of having a baby.

Sam Everingham, head of Growing Families, which gives advice to parents, surrogates, families and experts, has worked as an unofficial travel agent for about 100 desperate parents from the UK, Ireland, America, China, to name but a few, all trying to get to babies born to a surrogate in another country.

‘Covid-19 has led to mountains of additional red-tape,’ he says. ‘Airline routings have been chaotic and most of the families have had flights cancelled.’

At the height of the pandemic, Sam found a way for clients trying to collect their babies born to surrogates in the Ukraine: fly into Minsk, in Belarus, take a car to the border where, with the right permission, they could enter Ukraine — but only after a 1km trek on foot.

‘In the worst case scenarios, new parents have been separated from children for ten or more weeks, or have been trapped in foreign countries for months with newborns,’ he says.

Before flights to the Ukraine resumed in June, 76 babies born to local surrogates through one fertility clinic, Biotexcom, were stranded in Kiev, where they were looked after by nurses in a hotel room transformed into a giant nursery.

While some countries are relaxing travel restrictions, England is in lockdown until December 2 and any international travel is restricted.

Richard Vaughn, a Washington-based lawyer and expert in fertility law, estimates at least 200 would-be parents from countries subject to U.S. travel bans — the UK, most of Europe, China and Brazil — have approached him during the pandemic. ‘Some have put things on hold, but most have pressed on,’ he says.

Hannah is among those trying to press on in the face of delays, the pandemic and now anxiety-induced high blood pressure.

U.S. clinics are more lax about age limits than those in the UK, which often won’t treat women in their late 40s, she explains. ‘But, my God, this is the slowest, most painful process I have ever imagined. And, ultimately, I have absolutely nothing to show for it.’

The good news is the course of drugs prescribed by her GP to lower blood pressure is working.

In the meantime, she is hoping that speaking out about her predicament will encourage those in authority to smooth the path for others caught out by the virus.

‘My aim is to find other women like me and do whatever it takes to try to get someone to hear us. I believe that there is strength in numbers, but I have never felt more alone.’

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