“My heart goes out to all those who wanted children and didn’t achieve the dream of being the parents they so longed to be – whether they had IVF or not.”
IVF is no ‘rite of passage’
Some readers of this blog will have had fertility treatment and there will be many of you who haven’t. I think in this 40th year of IVF, when so much celebrating is going on, it is vital to remember, not just those for whom IVF didn’t work but all those people who are childless through circumstance and who didn’t have access to, couldn’t afford or simply didn’t wish to go through treatment. Over the years I heard comments from childless folk who feel there is a perception that IVF is somehow a ‘rite of passage’ – that by not going through it their loss is somehow lessened in the eyes of others.
Let me say that IVF is no ‘rite of passage’. Undergoing treatment does not make a childless person more worthy of compassion and it should not signal to others that choosing to have IVF says ‘Well, at least I tried!’ While I did choose to have IVF, I certainly don’t feel that decision somehow gives my loss extra validation. My heart goes out to all those who wanted children and didn’t achieve the dream of being the parents they so longed to be – whether they had IVF or not.
Two things happened last month that made me take a step back and examine the whole IVF situation. First, I was invited to speak on Sky News Live about my experience of having come through unsuccessful IVF. Then I was commissioned to write an opinion piece for The Independent that combined my experience with some of the current issues regarding funding for IVF. Both invitations were exciting – even if the thought of appearing on live TV for the first time was rather daunting! (When the producer asked me on the phone if I had any questions, among all the questions I could have asked, all I could think of was, ‘What should I wear?!’
Both the TV appearance and the newspaper article commission forced me to not just comment on how I feel about IVF but also on what I think about it. I had to step up and formulate an opinion…and present it in public. I am totally aware that I have leftover anger regarding our IVF experience for many reason, including for the way, after we ended treatment we were simply abandoned – the only communication from the clinic being an invoice for our final consultation. But having to think all over again about our experience, I realised my anger was also directed at the way there is so little education about fertility treatment: still so little awareness about its likelihood (or not) to be successful, about the availability (or not) of NHS funded treatment, about what the clinical statistics actually mean and about how there are still so many unknowns about how much the expensive, so-called ‘add-ons’ increase success rates on an individual basis.
Education, education, education
For me, growing up in the 1970s fertility education was all about avoiding an unplanned pregnancy. Even in my late twenties I was blissfully unaware that statistically, my fertility was on its inexorable journey southwards. I believe passionately that young women and men have a right to know the facts about fertility and how to ensure they have the best chance to conceive should they wish to have a family. Tied in with this, if we are to attempt to conceive at a younger age, we have to address the social imperatives that force women, and increasingly men, to choose between starting a family and abandoning or interrupting their careers – possibly at huge professional and financial cost.
Even knowing what I know now, I believe I would make the same decision to undergo treatment because I felt I needed that hope at that time. It is a very personal choice; there is no right or wrong decision. Of course, there are no guarantees that can be made with IVF. Even now, forty years on, only one-third of women undergoing treatment will have a live birth. But I believe that by having access to up-front, honest and transparent information and data I would have had more realistic expectations about our treatment. Additionally, had we been offered individual support and had access to counselling been considered an integral part of our treatment, I feel I would have fared better psychologically and my healing would have taken less time.
The Lucky Third
IVF is a wonderful medical breakthrough and I feel very grateful to belong to that second generation who was able to take advantage of the hope it offered us. That said, it is not a panacea. We cannot rely solely on IVF to help those struggling to conceive and a tide change in thinking about fertility and family, life and work is needed. Around 8 million children exist in the world today because of IVF. If that 8 million represents the lucky third, I think it’s time for society to recognise the magnitude of the individual and collective grief and loss associated with those of us who make up the two-thirds of fertility treatment patients that never achieved our dream of being parents.
Further information and reading
The British Fertility Society has a special interest programme that is dedicated to educating people about their fertility and the options they have to create a family if they wish to. https://britishfertilitysociety.org.uk/fei/
For anyone undergoing fertility treatment, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which regulates fertility treatment in the UK, has a wealth of information and explanations on statistics and so-called ‘add-ons’ https://www.hfea.gov.uk/treatments/explore-all-treatments/treatment-add-ons/
Some people say that fertility treatment is a luxury, that the desire to have children is a lifestyle choice. I would argue that that drive is as innate as the need for shelter and sustenance. Whilst as humans we can make a rational decision or choice not to have children (not always without regret) it remains for many a deep and fundamental need. Dr Jane Stewart https://britishfertilitysociety.org.uk/2018/07/25/happy-birthday-to-louise-brown-bfs-chair-dr-jane-stewart-reflects-on-40-years-of-ivf/