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Are the Daily Mail's revelations about the fertility industry really that surprising?

Posted by Alithea Williams on 10 May 2017

The Daily Mail ran several front page spreads on their investigation into the fertility industry.

Last week saw the nation's eyes turned on the fertility industry, as the Daily Mail has revealed, on the front page, the results of their full scale investigation. Their allegations of vulnerable women being convinced to donate their eggs in return for free treatment, and women being given false hope over the efficacy of egg freezing were shocking enough. Then came the claim that IVF clinics were covering up the scale of the potentially fatal side effects of egg harvesting. Reporters found that 800 women a year are taken to hospital with ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a sometimes deadly condition caused by the egg harvesting process - but clinics have been reporting numbers as low as 16.

These revelations of exploitation and malpractice have shocked everyone - whatever their opinion of IVF. However, they provide a good opportunity to question the ethics of the fertility industry more generally: is what the Mail has found really so surprising?

Egg "donation"

Take the claims that desperate women are being exploited for financial gain by being strongly encouraged to donate their eggs. They are being told that donating eggs is "just like giving blood" and only being given cursory counselling for something designed to lead to their biological children being born to and brought up by another woman. The stories of women being haunted by the knowledge that their child, who they may never see, is being raised by someone else, especially if they themselves did not have a baby, are desperately sad.

Lord Winston, who is hardly an opponent of IVF, said: "These women cannot appreciate the consequences of what they're agreeing to. These patients are vulnerable and anxious and likely to be worried about money. The women who are egg sharing are under duress and that’s really worrying."

Unfortunately, while in this country directly selling eggs is not permitted, it's perfectly legal to offer free IVF in return for egg donation. Even with extensive counselling, it's hard to see how any woman going through IVF, consumed with desire for a baby, would not at least be tempted by the possibility of free treatment: IVF is very, very expensive. And while they are convincing themselves that IVF will give them their miracle baby, it's unlikely that they'll really appreciate the implications of another woman having a baby using her eggs, while she does not.

Paying for children

The issue of cost brings us to the nub of the matter - IVF is, when you boil it down, paying money to have children. In the case of egg sharing, one woman is essentially paying for another's fertility treatment, in return for the chance to have children using her eggs. Women who are suffering from infertility and whose desire for children has led them to IVF are inherently vulnerable: is there any way to avoid exploitation in a scenario where you are paying thousands of pounds in the often vain hope of coming away with a baby?

"Many women undergoing IVF unnecessarily"

And it often is a vain hope. IVF births account for about 1% of the total number of births in Britain each year and 68,000 IVF babies have been born since 1978 - which sounds like quite a lot. However IVF is much more widely used than the number of births suggest. This is because IVF has about an 80% failure rate: for the total number of IVF treatment cycles carried out in Britain every year only about 20% result in a live birth. And these torturous cycles of failed IVF might not even be necessary. Lord Winston wrote recently: "...I believe many women are undergoing IVF treatments unnecessarily. This explains why so many get pregnant naturally after IVF has failed. There are dozens of causes of infertility, each possibly requiring different treatment. Like chest pain, infertility is just a symptom. But with chest pain you expect your doctor to do adequate tests to confirm that you don't have lung cancer, heart disease, a broken rib, etc. But complain about infertility and there is every chance you will simply be shunted off to an expensive IVF clinic with little or no investigation by the GP or the clinic."

What about the embryos?

All this is without even mentioning the obvious problem with IVF - what happens to embryos. While it may be debatable whether women are exploited by the fertility industry, it is beyond question that embryos are. In addition to the small number who survive the process and are born, around 170,000 IVF embryos perish every year - 2,053,656 since 1990 have been frozen, destroyed or used in research. Embryos can be created, donated to other couples or to researchers, frozen indefinitely and discarded at will.

It is an odd thing that many people who are against abortion, and who believe that life begins at conception, are reluctant to speak out against the loss of human life due to IVF. I suspect it's because most of us appreciate just how heartbreaking it is to find yourself unable to have children, and sympathise with those who try any route to do so. People may also be uncomfortable speaking out because they know someone who was born or who had children this way.

What's the most loving response?

However, morally objecting to IVF does not mean devaluing those who were born that way. In the same way that no one approves of extramarital affairs, we don't treat people conceived through them any differently. (In fact, never treating someone differently simply because of how they were conceived seems like a pretty good rule of thumb!) It's also perfectly possible to empathise with people suffering from infertility while not endorsing the use of IVF. Surely the most loving response, especially when IVF has such a high failure rate, is to point out the problems with it, and let people know about natural, ethical ways of improving the chances of conception, such as Naprotechnology. In fact, when women are being lied to, exploited and put in danger by the fertility industry and millions of embryos are being commodified and destroyed, it is our clear duty to warn people off IVF and towards ethical alternatives which are life and love affirming.

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