Waiting for a baby

Updated: 2012-01-03 07:40

By Yang Wanli and Tang Yue (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Dreams of childless couples are difficult to fulfill as egg donations strictly limited, report Yang Wanli from Beijing and Tang Yue from Tianjin.

Waiting for a baby

Egg traders negotiate through agencies in a hotel lobby in downtown Beijing on Oct 22. [Photo/China Daily]

It is 6 am in a Beijing winter, and dozens of people are waiting outside Peking University Third Hospital to make appointments. "We've seen many doctors in Hebei but got nowhere. This is our final hope, and we have to line up earlier to see a chief physician," said a young man from Hebei province who was lining up outside the hospital for the first time with his wife. He had been there since 4 am. Unlike at other hospitals, couples here are all lining up for one thing - help getting a baby. This is an increasingly common scenario as the incidence of sterility in China has grown from 3 percent in the 1970s to about 15 percent in 2009.

As China's renowned hospital for treating sterility, Peking University Third Hospital receives more than half of Bejing's couples with fertility problems seeking help, as well as from many from other provinces.

More than a thousand couples visit the medical reproductive center every month and about 8,000 tried in-vitro fertilization in the hospital last year.

Some couples, though, will have to rely on a third person to realize their dreams.

"About two or three in 100 couples we received need to get another's sperm or egg," said Liu Ping, deputy director of the hospital's reproductive center.

"Although there are several sperm banks nationwide, most of them fall short of demand."

Five hundred couples are still on the center's sperm waiting list. Liu said that they have to politely refuse more patients, who would just end up hopelessly waiting.

The Ministry of Health began allowing sperm banks to open in 2001, setting a maximum of one per province or autonomous region. Today, 10 operate nationwide. All are State-run, but demand exceeds supply.

The situation for egg banks, on the other hand, is bleaker.

Peking University First Hospital, which generated media attention for its egg freezing technology and once planned to build an egg bank, is stopping the service.

A press official surnamed Sun said that the Ministry of Health released regulations on egg donations in 2006 - including many "strict" rules with concerns of higher standards for facilities and moral principles - which led to the hospital halting the plan.

Short of eggs

The first successful in-vitro fertilization procedure took place in 1978 in Britain and the first pregnancy using donated eggs was reported in Australia in 1983. In China, the first baby from a frozen egg was born in 2004.

"But there is no egg bank in China to date, I mean, like sperm banks that provide germ cells," said Liu. "Egg banks are hard to operate because of the few eggs that one donor can give as well as the negative effects to donors in the donation process."

Liu said there are tens of millions of sperm cells in one milliliter of semen. Despite imperfections or those damaged during the freezing process, there are still enough healthy sperm cells remaining for fertilization.

"But the eggs are easily damaged in freezing. About 10 percent of all eggs taken from the human body can be frozen without any damage and about half are able to make a test tube baby after thawing," she said.

Moreover, unlike sperm donors, egg donors need medical assistance and have to take fertility drugs to stimulate ovulation.

"Generally speaking, a woman will only produce one egg every month. But for egg freezing, we need more," Liu said.

After taking the drug, about 10 to 15 eggs will be produced, creating more chances for collection. But side effects include shortness of breath, calf and chest pains, marked abdominal bloating or distention, and lower abdominal pains.

In addition, the eggs must be surgically removed with a probing pin inserted into the ovary through the vagina.

According to a regulation released by the Ministry in 2006, only those women who are to have IVF babies themselves are allowed to donate their redundant eggs during the assisted reproductive process.

"The regulation was made, more specifically, to prohibit egg and sperm donation for business purposes. Under the regulation, there are so few donors that it can hardly support a bank," said Liu.

According to Liu, the best age for egg freezing is from 22 to 35.

"But if donors can only be those who are prepared for IVF babies, there will hardly be any possibility to get donated eggs. They went through pain to get these eggs," she said.

Great danger

Eggs are hard to get, but the demand is still there. Without egg banks, more than 100 local agents are doing business on the black market, serving more than 10,000 families in China, reported The Beijing News.

The agents advertise online with college students the main target. Interviewing is regularly organized to let the clients choose the egg provider, followed by physical examinations. Beautiful young college students in renowned schools are preferred.

The egg retrieval is usually conducted in Hong Kong and Thailand, but sometimes illegally in some local clinics. The donors are paid thousands of yuan on average while the agent can earn up to 100,000 yuan.

"I've read news online that a college student sold her egg. It also said the well-educated and the beauties can earn more. I will never do this. It leads to a moral dilemma. Who is the child's mother in the end?" said Wu Shihe, 24, a marketing specialist in a super market in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.

"I think it is just like selling an organ. It is just prostitution or even worse than prostitution because it is not being responsible for the children. I don't think we should promote it even if the dealers say they did this to give hopes to the family. Child traffickers also claim they have helped the families that want babies. But they are something really bad," she said.

Under Chinese law, eggs from one donor can be provided to a maximum of five married women (singles are not eligible) and should not be distributed again after a recipient is confirmed pregnant.

But if donations are done on the black market, things are different.

"Ethical issues might happen in the black market without regular follow-up visits in hospitals," said Wu Yuanyuan, a doctor in the Guangdong Family Planning Hospital. The hospital is one of the most famous hospitals for human assisted reproductive technology in the province. It is also the only hospital with a sperm bank in Guangdong and has freezing technology.

According to Wu, prohibitions on the human egg trade in China are mainly to protect women who have never given birth.

In general, women with three types of reproductive problems use egg donation: women who lack functioning ovaries, women who cannot achieve pregnancy for some reason through in-vitro fertilization, and women who donated eggs for genetic reasons.

Li Xiang contributed to this story.