IVF has allowed millions of people to become parents, but infertility treatment is still a lottery

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 30 July 2018 in Comment

As Louise Brown, the first so-called test tube baby, celebrated her 40th last week I reflected on all the people who had an investment in what led to my son’s creation 

When my son was conceived, my husband was in London, I was in Finland and our future baby was in Aberdeen being made in a petri-dish by scientists.

Modern day miracles often need a little human hand and our 6lb 4oz marvel arrived by way of a sheer pioneering doggedness by the infertility team at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary to make it happen.

And while his very beginnings may have been overtly clinical, he was, like any baby still made with love.

As Louise Brown, the first so-called test tube baby, celebrated her 40th last week I reflected on all the people, but particularly the women, who had an investment in what led to my son’s creation as one of the first ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection) babies as he reaches his own birthday milestone of 21.

There have been more than eight million IVF babies born since Louise Brown. Millions of lives that would otherwise never have been here and millions of parents who would never have known such joy.

Indeed, when Louise was born, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, the two men who came up with the technique, suggested her middle name should be ‘Joy’. Forty years, and millions of babies later, many will agree they were right.

But infertility treatment is still a lottery; success rates are low – around 29 per cent for women under the age of 35 - and for many, private treatments are so expensive that it makes the chance of even trying for a baby an unaffordable luxury.

And yet, despite the undeniably poor outcomes, thousands of childless people will invest, body, soul and savings, into the hope that they will be one of the lucky third.

Louise’s social media timeline was littered with messages of heartfelt gratitude from people who would never have become parents had it not been for her mother allowing her body to be put to the test.

But amid the plaudits, was also a hint of the controversy that IVF still ignites. Pro-life campaigners protesting about the embryos discarded during a medical process that beyond the probabilities aims to bring at least one life into the world.

And as someone with a vested interest in the success of IVF, that’s personal.

I once spent two days interviewing a prominent Catholic priest. It was, in the main, a respectful, heart lifting and intellectually challenging interview. But then we talked about IVF.

And as he raged on about what he considered to be the wanton destruction of life during the process, I told him my own son was an IVF baby and out of that procedure had come one single, beautiful and much wanted life that would otherwise never have been. He didn’t blink.

Here’s a thing. Until I embarked on IVF, I hadn’t really considered too hard the issue of when life begins. I had always been pro-choice because as a woman, I believed and believe, the consequences of not, are too horrific.

But IVF did do something to me, it made me a little sadder. I saw my embryos with my own eyes. A little cluster of cells, flower-like, with each one having a potential to become my child.

I survived the rigours of IVF – and it is a waring, destructive and too often pointless exercise – by never believing it would end with a baby. The emotional ups and downs, the physical risks, the discomfort and the pain, I managed to put in a box while I protected myself from inevitable disappointment.

But there was always one moment when that mask would slip, when the doctor inserted two of my embryos and their survival suddenly rested outside of the safety of a petri-dish and inside me. Only then would I have a little cry.

IVF can be a source of unimaginable happiness but ultimately carries a 70 per cent risk of failure and as someone who was lucky enough to find success, surely it is wrong for the process that brought me a child me be condemned for the lives that could have been and not celebrated for the ones that are here?

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