This summer will mark 40 years since the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown. When Louise’s mum, Lesley, gave birth in Royal Oldham Hospital, she brought into public consciousness something that was previously the stuff of science fiction: that a human embryo could be created in a laboratory and, if placed in the womb, result in the birth of a healthy child.
I had the pleasure of meeting Louise in March this year at the annual conference of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), not only for an early celebration of her birthday but also to mark an event that brought hope to millions around the world who have suffered the anguish of infertility. Now an astonishing 20,000 babies are born a year as a result of IVF.
This wouldn’t have been possible without the sheer dedication of those who developed IVF – Sir Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe. Bob and Patrick’s work – along with that of Jean Purdy, who Bob rightly credited as the third IVF pioneer – was often undertaken in the face of considerable hostility and opposition. Together they changed our understanding of human reproduction forever.
Fertility treatment services have come a long way since Louise’s birth, due in no small part to the expertise of the HFEA.
But we know that some people are willing to try anything – even treatments they find on the internet, regardless of the cost – if they believe it might give them the child they long for. We must make sure people have the right information to make fully-informed choices, particularly when considering the bewildering array of options and add-ons. What we don’t want to see are couples accessing treatment overseas which may not be regulated to the same high standards as the UK. The HFEA website offers new guidance on IVF treatment, which I encourage couples to look at.
As well as being open about the evidence supporting treatment options, providers also need to be clear about the likely cost of that treatment. Fertility services are unique in the UK – we have an active private sector sitting alongside the NHS sector. The NHS should be paying a consistent price for IVF and other treatments, however we are still seeing too much variation across England. This needs to change.
There is some very good work underway by NHS England in partnership with HFEA, professional groups and patient stakeholders to develop a benchmark price for IVF. I am committed to driving this work forward with the NHS to help local areas get the very best value for money.
Clarity and consistency around the price of treatment does not just offer better value for money, it will also help address consistency and fairness in access to services.
Whether it’s transparency over costs, improving access to NHS services or the successful delivery of more IVF babies, success must not be at the expense of safety. The rights and the wellbeing of those women embarking on an emotional journey towards parenthood must be paramount.
So, on this 40th anniversary of the birth of the very first IVF baby, the fertility sector has much to be proud of, and I hope the NHS will continue to lead the way. Louise – I wish you a very happy birthday and to all the children, parents and families helped by IVF, enjoy the many happy birthdays still to come.