When the subject of single women using IVF and other types of fertility treatment was debated in the Houses of Parliament over 25 years ago, the conversation was clearly characterised by moral panic. Who were these women? Where did they come from? And did their pursuit of parenthood mark the beginning of a new breed of modern families - without men?
Since then, much - yet little - has changed. In 2009 the UK's national regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) mandated that clinicians making decisions about whom to offer fertility treatment must consider a child's 'need for supportive parenting' - a clause that replaced a previous statement drawn up in 1990 about a child's 'need for a father'. It would be reasonable to assume that single women have since been seeking fertility treatment in their droves. And the most recent news reports about figures published by the HFEA would imply this to be the case.
But of course, statistics can be misleading. And while there may have been an increase in single women having consultations at licensed fertility clinics in the UK, this fact in fact tells us very little. It tells us little about how many women actually decide, or are approved, to pursue treatment. It tells us little about how many women are ultimately successful in conceiving a child. And it tells us nothing about those women who may use donor sperm outside of the clinical context - from contacts made on networking sites such as Pride Angel, and, more recently, Facebook.
In fact, when compared to the number of couples who seek, pursue, and achieve parenthood using treatment, single women still represent a small proportion of all fertility service users in Britain today. In 2013 - the last year for which complete data is available - 42,721 people used fertility treatment (IVF and/or sperm donation). 1,015 of them registered for treatment without a partner. And yet, the path to parenthood for single women seeking fertility treatment still remains socially scrutinised. This is at best senseless, and at worst, deeply problematic. For not only does this spotlight shed little light on the experiences of the majority of people who conceive (and are unable to conceive) using IVF and other treatments, it enables the continuation of a confused conversation about the single women who do so - as both increasingly common, and yet entirely extraordinary.
What's more, statements about the rise of single women using fertility treatment may be masking some of the challenges still faced by this cohort in the clinical setting. Recent research has shown that fertility professionals remain concerned about single women's motivations for motherhood, and the future welfare of the children born to them. On these issues, our own research at the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge has clearly indicated that there is no one type of single woman who seeks fertility treatment. Nor do the children in such single-mother families seem to differ from their two-parent peers in terms of their psychological, social, and emotional development.
In other words, the status - single or otherwise - of fertility service users should not be newsworthy. And by focussing on the few hundred increase in the number of women who register for treatment without a partner, we clearly fail to address the more pressing questions - about treatment funding, treatment efficacy, and non-discriminatory service delivery - that ought to be asked about assisted reproduction today.