Four years ago, last week, my son was “defrosted”. This was the culmination of years of trying to conceive, multiple cycles of IVF, miscarriage and repeated heartbreak. Yet, with thanks to advances in reproductive science, he was created in a petri-dish, vitrified, thawed and is currently a very happy and active three-year-old boy. Medical science is truly awe-inspiring but is, unfairly, becoming inaccessible for all who require its intervention.
However, there is some hope. Last week also saw the UK’s leading fertility charity, Fertility Network UK, and online fertility magazine, IVF Babble, present a 102,000 strong petition, to Downing Street, calling for equality, across the national health service, and an end to the IVF postcode lottery.
Infertility is a disease. It is real and is currently known to affect one in six couples, in the UK. It’s something which individuals may never even know they are burdened with, until they start trying to conceive. When the excitement of anticipation, initially so full of joy and promise and hope, becomes a painful, saddening realisation of grief and unfulfilled dreams.
Almost eight years ago, when we tried to start our family, we were one of the “fortunate” infertile couples. We suffered from primary infertility, were the correct age, weight and had a specific diagnosis as to why we couldn’t conceive naturally. We also lived in an area where, upon meeting the criteria, were eligible to receive two NHS funded cycles of IVF. As grateful as we were, to be offered treatment, NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines recommend three cycles for women under 40. I’ve never fully understood how evidence-based research and public health advice, designed to protect patients, can simply be ignored.
We were also fortunate that we could pay the excess required, when we didn’t become pregnant during those two attempts. Because we had the money to self-fund private treatment, I was able to conceive, grow and feel a life within me. I got to raise a child, from birth, just like every parent who is, wonderfully, able to conceive naturally.
We’re also one of the fortunate, as we ended up with the IVF jackpot: our child.
The fear of childlessness, not by choice, is overwhelming, agonising and suffocating. Until we became an infertility statistic, I never fully comprehended or acknowledged the pain it causes. It’s soul destroying, isolating and all consuming; infertility has an infinite supply of despair. It’s often said that fear thrives on emptiness and, to me, that’s what infertility is; emptiness of womb, of present and of future. Fear also destroys joy, which anyone who has ever experienced infertility will understand; being infertile can strip the enjoyment out of everything. Depression takes over, worthlessness kicks in and suicidal thoughts can be rife.
I’ve always wanted to be a mother. I’d always dreamed of a family, planning a life which revolved around my children and, whilst adoption and fostering are routes we did, and continue to, consider, I desperately wanted the gift of carrying a child and the privilege of knowing my miracle, from newborn to beyond. To feel him kick and hiccup, in my womb. To experience childbirth and reach for him, when he was just seconds old. To smell that new born baby smell, of my child, watching and guiding my helpless babe become an independent adult, having a front row seat as he conquers his own future; situations I’d previously taken for granted.
NHS postcode lotteries always have the capacity to cause unfair suffering and, whilst I wholeheartedly understand there is a finite pot of money, with many worthwhile and incredibly emotive reasons to spend it, I also believe that having a child should not be elitist. In no other case of conception is financial affluence a prerequisite. Surely everyone, desperate to become a parent, should have the right to try, to access the science and know how which has been amassed over the last 40 years. IVF is not a guaranteed pathway to pregnancy, but it does provide options, a chance and, with odds ever increasing, more hope.
I’m utterly in awe of medical science and the advances, regularly, being made to help those in need. But it should be available for all, and not just those who happen to live in the right area or can afford the high price tag. Whilst having a child is certainly not a meritocracy it, unfortunately, has the potential to become exclusive, privileged and restrictive, leaving many facing heartbreak, devastation and a life which can feel beyond repair.
No one dreams of conceiving in a sterile, clinical environment and yet, for 3.5million of us, that’s exactly what our dreams are made of, if we can afford them.