Five million babies later, IVF remains divisive decades on (Published in The Press and Journal, send to us by Rachel Reid)
For every happy arrival there are more stories of misery and despair from women attempting to become pregnant.
It was billed as one of the most radical developments in medical science when Louise Brown became the first child to be born through in-vitro fertilization in the summer of 1978.
The process, which was controversial at the time after being pioneered by gynaecologist, Patrick Steptoe and Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Robert Edwards, first worked in November 1977.
But secrecy surrounded the creation of what the press described as the original “test tube baby”, once news began to leak out.
The Brown family received hate mail from as far afield as the United States, there was talk of “Frankenbabies”, and some religious figures warned that IVF was a dangerous means of engineering conception.
And yet now, 40 years later, more than five million peoples have been born across the globe because of the technique, whereby an egg is removed from a woman’s ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory as the prelude to being implanted in the uterus.
There are many misconceptions about IVF, and these will be highlighted during National Fertility Awareness Week, which commences today.
The treatment fails 75% of the time and the majority of people in the UK have to pay for it. For every happy new arrival into the world, there are myriad other tales of frustration, despair and depression.
The Fertility Network UK has asked people who have used IVF to explain their reaction to it and the answers range the whole way from heart-warming to heart-breaking.
One respondent said: “IVF ruined my life, my marriage and although I am over the fact that I will never have children, I am still angry, resentful and bitter. Every day, I wonder ‘what if?’ I am happy for all those it worked for, but it was a killer for me. Nobody ever talks about when it doesn’t work.”
These words are in stark contrast to the person who replied: “Our little miracles arrived after five early miscarriages and three unsuccessful IVF cycles. And they arrived on Christmas morning in 2005 and made our lives complete. We are thankful every day for the wonderful science that is IVF.”
Such conflicting emotions are not uncommon.
The Press and Journal talked to Rachel Reid, 35, from Kirkton of Skene, Aberdeenshire, and she spoke about the difficulties which can arise.
She and her husband, Dave, 38, have been trying to start a family, but it has been fraught with problems.
Mrs Reid said: “Our IVF journey started almost a year ago. We naively went into our first round knowing the statistics, but feeling confident that we would be among the lucky few who would have success.
“How wrong we were. After two months of taking tablets, injecting daily hormones, suffering invasive procedures and countless internal examinations, constantly feeling awful and worrying yourself sick, to devastatingly find out that it had all been for nothing is a heartache like no other.
“Going into the process again, I could not have felt more negative and depleted. Rather than it being easier, knowing what would follow in the weeks to come made it 10 times harder. And you never get a break from it; the worrying and feeling like a failure is relentless.
“You are constantly willing your mind and body to play along, do its job and just allow us one baby – please just one and we will be content for the rest of our lives.
“But despite my pessimism we were lucky enough to have a positive result. Words cannot describe our absolute elation; finally we felt we were in ‘the club’ and the struggle of the IVF had all been worth it.
“So the absolute horror of having it all ripped away from us with a miscarriage at seven weeks was a pain we have never experienced; a true knife in the heart. It felt as if we were playing a fertility version of snakes and ladders.
“IVF is 100% harder than we ever thought it would be. Although it is difficult, you can just about cope with the physical effects, it is your mental and emotional wellbeing that suffers the most.
“I know with certainty that I am a different person now than the one I was before I started this process. I have desperately tried to never let it define who I am; but I feel hardened in some way and sad that life has dealt us this cruel blow.
“We are lucky in so many ways, however, and we feel incredibly fortunate that we live in a country and an age where infertility does not necessarily mean a life of childlessness. We continue to hope.”
IVF enables many couples with a range of fertility problems to conceive a child and now allows same-sex couples and single mothers to have children as well.
This is a far cry from the late 1970’s when it was highly experimental and Dr Mike Macnamee, chief executive at the world’s first IVF clinic – Bourn Hall in Cambridge – described Louise Brown as a “miracle”.
And yet, as the Reid’s account demonstrates, science still can’t provide any guarantees.
Another IVF respondent, who requested anonymity, said: “It’s the reason my purse is empty, and my weekends a blur of early mornings, dance classes and chauffeuring, and, most importantly, the reason my heart is complete.
“IVF was the most stressful, heart wrenching and exhausting experience of my life, but it is one that I would definitely do again in an instant.”
But the advice from Susan Seenan, the Chief Executive of Fertility Network UK, is for couples to go into the IVF process with their eyes wide open. She told the Press and Journal: “More people are turning to fertility treatment these days, including IVF. However, the sad fact is that not enough NHS fertility treatment is available in some parts of the UK.
“The result is that the majority of people have to pay for their own fertility treatment. We are campaigning hard to change this situation and for everyone to be able to access the IVF Gold Standard – three full NHS IVF cycles and access if one partner has a child from a previous relationship.
“But our advice to anyone experiencing fertility issues is to be as positive as possible, but grounded, and remember that the first cycle of IVF in particular is not always the one which will be successful. The IVF journey can be a very lonely and isolating one, so we urge people to seek support from others in similar situations and from organisations such as Fertility Network UK.
“You are not alone.”