When Jyotsna was just shy of age 35, she starting thinking about babies. As a single, divorced, career-centered woman living in New York City it was problematic.
“The whole idea of dating–getting a man, having a relationship, then getting married–seemed a distant possibility given the dating situation here,” said Jyotsna, recounting her story in her temporary Manhattan apartment this past September. For privacy reasons, Jyotsna, who’s a friend, prefers to use only her first name.
Jyotsna’s apartment is littered with baby paraphernalia: stuffed animals, baby clothes, bottles and a stroller. Lying next to her on the sofa, swathed in blankets and sleeping contentedly, is her nearly 1-month-old son. Her mother is in the kitchen making tea.
Like many Indian citizens, Jyotsna came to the U.S. to attend school. She was 17 when she arrived to study marketing at the Parsons School of Design and graduated with a job at a health care branding agency. After a failed marriage but successful career, Jyotsna found herself in a predicament common to many women: a ticking biological clock.
“One day when I was on the phone with my roommate, a Bombay bindaas (free spirited) girl, she said to me, ‘Hey, why bother trying to get married, why don’t you just freeze your eggs?'” said Jyotsna.
Freezing an embryo is a common in-vitro fertilization, or IVF, procedure. But the process of freezing eggs, or oocyte cryopreservation, was still novel about five years ago. Jyotsna had heard about it but never thought to apply it to herself. At her friend’s suggestion she researched it online and found New York University’s fertility center to be one of the pioneers in the field and got an appointment with a doctor.
‘Let’s Make it Happen’
“You’d assume their clients to be married, heterosexual couples who are unable to conceive for some reason,” said Jyotsna.
“In this case my doctor did not even ask me about my marital status or anything. She was just like, ‘Hey you want a baby, let’s make it happen.’ It was very practical, matter-of-fact and I liked that approach,” said Jyotsna.
Dr. Jamie Grifo, program director of NYU’s fertility center, said they have been freezing eggs successfully since 2005.
“We offered it to cancer patients and women who wanted to wait and be their own egg donor,” said Grifo. “We have frozen about 2,500 cycles and have had well over a hundred babies. The procedure is most efficient under the age of 35. We get pretty good results with women at age 38, 39, 40, but not as good.”
Since the procedure was expensive–costing about $15,000 for one cycle of egg extraction, and not covered by her insurance–Jyotsna had to consult her parents.
“I explained that I found this procedure and that I was not getting any younger,” she said. “Storing my eggs would be like an insurance policy–to keep for a rainy day. My parents were cool about it.”
The process involved two weeks of hormonal injections to produce the maximum number of eggs in a cycle. Together with a friend they watched YouTube videos on the administration of these injections.
“My coffee table looked like a drug addict’s table,” said Jyotsna. “It had syringes, needles and alcohol swabs. I shut myself from all social life as you do get hormonal and cranky. It’s like PMS, amped up. I was bloated and at the end was wearing sweatpants to work.”
The egg extraction was simple, done under general anesthesia, and her eggs were extracted vaginally. Jyotsna had 19 viable eggs and they were stored at NYU’s fertility clinic at an annual fee of $1,000. It took her body two weeks to get back to normal.
“This relieved pressure and I stopped thinking about babies and having panic attacks since I had the eggs,” said Jyotsna.
Grifo said the cost today remains about the same and adds that it is still considered an elective procedure by insurance companies.
Baby Fever Reignites
In 2013, Jyotsna permanently relocated to India to be with her family. She opened a travel company and planned trips to Uzbekistan and Ladakh, India. But in 2014 her baby fever reignited whilst vacationing in France with her sister and young nieces.
“Seeing them made me want my own little ones,” said Jyotsna. “My mom was very supportive. I was surprised as I expected some pushback. Even though my parents are not conservative, it’s still a very liberal take on life, to go off and have a child on your own!”
Malini, Jyotsna’s mother, describes her family as progressive.
“When she told me, my husband and I agreed readily,” said Malini, who also asked that only her first name be used.
“We know how difficult it is to find a partner and Jyotsna has been looking. Ten years ago I would have said ‘no’ but things are changing. I think more women should do this as I don’t like men having an upper hand. It’s much nicer when we have a choice and don’t have to get married.”
Jyotsna began preliminary research on sperm donors and found that in India it is the doctor who sources sperm based on the client’s specifications. However, her doctor there was not encouraging.
“My doctor in India was very doom-and-gloom, saying things like, ‘At 38 you are too old to get pregnant,'” said Jyotsna. “My doctor in New York was positive saying, ‘Hey you’re right on point. Women are having babies in their late 30s. Come here and we will take of you.'”
Jyotsna returned to New York in 2014 to continue the process. To find sperm she used California Cryobank, which is something like a sperm dating site.
“You have all these different criteria to search by, like ethnicity, education, or you can be superficial and search by height and color of eyes,” said Jyotsna. “I did start looking by Indians, but there were like 10 to choose from. There are many Scandinavians for some reason. It’s interesting to look at these databases, which are all anonymous, all student donors are in their early 20s.”
Jyotsna narrowed the search by three characteristics that would complement those she lacked; being an extrovert, tall and athletic. Again with a friend, she reviewed hundreds of profiles and shortlisted them to six, which she sent to her friends for review. Finally she picked a Caucasian of Anglo-Ukrainian heritage, saying his personality stood out.
“In his interview clip he seemed kind, gentle and enjoyed family,” said Jyotsna. “He put himself through law school, was athletic and wrote a book – he seemed multidimensional. And when I listened to his taped interview, his tone seemed confident and articulate. I liked this guy for how he presented himself, others came across as champions and hot-shots.”
Ethical questions hang over this newfound ability to choose traits in an offspring. Michael Sandel, a professor of ethics at Harvard, wrote in The Atlantic that such breakthroughs in genetics, which usually favor the wealthy, create a predicament in that we are remaking nature to serve our purpose and satisfy our desires. He compares this practice to eugenics; in that the products are of deliberate design.
Pressing against these significant ethical considerations are the freedom these technologies have provided women; in allowing them to live and procreate on their own terms.
Once Jyotsna picked the sperm, the lab fertilized 10 of her eggs. They got seven embryos and incubated them for five days. She ended with four embryos that were viable. For an additional $8,000 she said one can choose the sex of the child, a process called PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis), which is primarily intended to screen for genetic and chromosomal abnormalities. Jyotsna opted not to do it.
“In India most of my friends are doing IVF as it’s so difficult to get pregnant,” said Jyotsna.
“There is one set who get married in their 20s, and have babies at 25 and another set in their 30s and 40s who have difficulty conceiving. I have many friends who use donor eggs to conceive. I think it’s great that medical technology offers so many options, otherwise by age 40 you have to close the book and say ‘I am done,'” she said.
To prepare her body for the IVF, Jyotsna had to take progesterone injections before and after the transfer, for a total of 70 days. She had to psyche herself about the injections as they were painful and taken intramuscularly. The actual IVF implantation was seamless, she said.
“I had to do a pregnancy test after 10 days,” said Jyotsna. “It was an insane period where I would test myself all the time. Friends were telling me to eat pineapple to make it stick, old wives’ tales!”
Jyotsna did get pregnant and after 10 weeks, left for India. She spent $10,000 for one IVF. In India her parents spread the good news with friends and family.
“There was some confusion at first as they thought I was getting married,” said Jyotsna, laughing. “We had to explain all the facts and they asked questions but everyone except one was supportive. I encourage my friends to do this, sometimes doing it means admitting defeat–of giving up hope of having a relationship. That is not true, it’s like going three steps forward to victory.”