Forty years ago today IVF was successful for the first time. An embryo - sitting not in a test tube but a petri dish - divided itself from four cells into eight. A new life had been created. Today that embryo is Louise Brown, a 39-year-old British mother of two. Since she arrived - to international fascination and hospital corridors lined with policemen - millions of babies including mine have gone on to be born via the procedure. Truly, it feels miraculous that it worked once, let alone that it has become almost commonplace.
But what position does IVF hold in society today? Do we take it for granted, are we being prescribed it too little or too much, and do many of us understand what it really entails at all? The stark truth is that IVF doesn’t work more often than it does. Multiple attempts are frequently needed and even then it can fail to produce a child. It can be an utterly brutal procedure, messing with our bodies’ delicate ecosystems, devouring our savings and shredding its way through our relationships. Added to this, it is becoming an increasingly commercialised industry, one where obtaining honest statistics can be tricky and sophisticated sales techniques are increasingly common - particularly as the current government clamps down on the availability of the treatment via the NHS.
It is hard to know if this is what its pioneering creators had in mind when they first had success in Oldham in 1977. Scientist Robert Edward and his gynaecologist colleague Patrick Steptoe can have had no idea of the impact their research would go on to have when they began it in the 1960s. Back then, the process was exceptionally controversial - shrouded in secrecy, viewed with intense suspicion, prompting both protests and headlines. What came to be seen as an almost magical last chance for so many infertile would-be parents was then talked about as immoral in some quarters, including in their own scientific community. They were refused a grant by the Medical Research Council and had to operate outside of the NHS, but were convinced that they could help couples struggling to conceive.
Today much of the stigma has lifted. Very few see immorality in the procedure and the veil of secrecy about what IVF, from egg collection to embryo freezing, actually entails is being lifted as more women undergo it. But replacing that stigma is a grim commercial pressure. Where some European countries offer up to four attempts, the situation in the UK is wildly varied, and enormously unfair, with availability being cut rather than increased. The help you might be eligible for can differ from street to street, depending on the boundaries of the NHS CCG (clinical commissioning group) in which you live. This leaves some of us trying to find ways to fund treatment while neighbours receive exceptional service without spending a single penny.
I would rather have tried than have wondered forever, and IVF gave me that chance long before it made me a mother
This scattershot financial set up is unsustainable. The decision to have treatment is an enormous one, and adding financial mayhem to the equation can only apply further pressure to the choices already stressed candidates are faced with. Rumours abound on fertility websites of doctors who have a magic touch, treatment abroad which offers infinite cycles, and herbal concoctions that can help embryos to implant, while what are effectively trade fairs promise egg extraction and freezing as ways to pre-empt later failed attempts, allowing women to work for longer (rather than employers to better accommodate mothers). If you read too much, you can forget that well intentioned scientists were behind this all. Infertility is not fair on anyone, but adding these imbalances to the UK’s current system seems a cruelty too far.
And for those for whom IVF has not worked, this anniversary will be a bittersweet one. Their story is not one often told. It is the women who produce headline-friendly ‘miracle babies’ who get to tell their stories in the press, who offer their ‘journeys’ in blogs they didn’t feel they had to anonymise, who dispense advice with a knowing smile. I know that every time an article ends with ‘…and now I have my gorgeous baby I wouldn’t change a thing’, it feels like a slap in a face for those still confronted with a dizzying array of choices, needles, and blood tests. Oh how I longed to read about those who had unsuccessfully undertaken IVF, but had gone on to be happy, to live full lives.
Nevertheless IVF is a triumph of hope over sufferance. That our scientists chose to address infertility heartens me, even 40 years later, and that teams still dedicate themselves daily to helping those yearning for children is still of comfort to me. The procedure has made enormous strides in levelling the playing field for LGBT+ families, and will only continue to do so. I would rather have tried than have wondered forever, and IVF gave me that chance long before it made me a mother.
For all the undeniably gruelling aspects of the treatment, it still ended up being a positive experience for me. Not just because I was one of the lucky ones, but because of the resilience it forced me to find in myself. Infertility is a cruel and unscrupulous condition which leaves women in particular left feeling they have somehow let the side down, should have tried harder, or sooner or for longer. To confront that yearning, to give it your best shot and to teach yourself that you are of value, regardless of your ability to produce offspring is an invaluable opportunity when all seems lost.
Enduring those months of needles, the endless blister packs of progesterone and the repeated medical appointments, waiting, trembling for results also gifted me a huge amount of empathy for those suffering other chronic conditions, and for those who are reliant on hormone treatments for other reasons, taking up this generation’s burden of being deemed immoral or controversial.
As such, it isn’t just the chance to be parents that the NHS is reducing the availability of, but the chance to look very hard, in our darkest hour, at who we really want to be and what we are capable of. Please let that not become something only available to those with the requisite funds.