Penelope, 30, and her husband, 38, have already spent £8,915 on fertility treatment – but they are no closer to having a second child.
The couple, based in Manchester, had a baby thanks to one successful round of NHS-funded IVF in 2018, but now they’re facing spiralling private fees in a bid to grow their family.
“We are currently in debt and have had to take out a loan,” Penelope, who chose not to share her surname, tells HuffPost UK. “We have looked into selling the house but financially we would not be any better off with legal fees. We have reached out to family and friends but nobody we know is in a position to help. I have even donated my eggs to raise funds for another round.”
Penelope has PCOS and endometriosis, while her husband has male-factor fertility problems, meaning they require treatment to conceive. However, in their local area, couples are not eligible for further rounds of NHS IVF after having a child.
The NHS postcode lottery means thousands of hopeful parents are facing the same situation. Across the country, integrated care boards (IBCs) – previously called clinical commissioning groups – impose their own restrictions on IVF access, including age limitations, BMI cut-offs, and restrictions if one partner has a child from a previous relationship.
The government promised to address the disparity as part of the Women’s Health Strategy it unveiled in July, but some local IBCs are still not funding any IVF treatment at all.
The situation means that two-thirds of IVF patients (63%) now pay for their own medical treatment privately, according to a new survey conducted by Fertility Network UK with Middlesex University London.
The average amount they spend on investigations and treatment has hit £13,750 – though for some couples, the bill will far exceed this.
The costs are pricing some couples out of starting a family, while others are making huge sacrifices in others areas of their lives, and its impacting their mental health.
“I’m having my long hair cut short to help reduce the use of shampoo and hair drying time to save money,” says Penelope. “I’ve been avoiding friends as petrol is a fortune at the moment and some of my friends live 30-plus minutes away.
“Our lives are tough at the moment and we are grateful for this chance to conceive again, but the worry is, what state will we be in if this is successful? Maternity leave will be extremely hard, with IVF there’s a chance I could have twins and I would be terrified as we could not afford childcare if we had two.”
“Thousands of pounds with no baby to show for it.”
It’s also worth remembering that IVF is not always successful. The most recent data available shows 32% of IVF treatments resulted in a live birth for women under 35, dropping to 25% for women aged 35 to 37, 19% for women aged 38 to 39, and 11% for women aged 40 to 42.
As Alex Holder, the author of Open Up: Why Talking About Money Will Change Your Life and a private IVF patient puts it: “The fact is that people undergoing IVF treatment are more likely to have spent over £15,000 to have a miscarriage than a successful pregnancy.”
Danielle Anderson, 36 and based in Birmingham, had two failed rounds of NHS-funded IVF and two failed private rounds abroad.
Increasingly, couples are travelling to access cheaper treatment oversees, but costs still add up (Anderson says tests, medication and treatment totalled £8,900, plus she paid for flights and accommodation on top at around £3,000).
“It’s particularly heart-breaking when the cycle is unsuccessful and you have spent thousands of pounds with no baby to show for it – just a bin full of injections and a few bruises on your stomach,” she says.
“Obviously we entered the IVF journey knowing it is not a guarantee to work but it is a hope and chance of a baby.”
Watching friends conceive naturally without any cost also had a “big impact” on her mental health, she says. In a last-ditch attempt, she underwent one final round via abc ivf – which markets itself as the UK’s most affordable fertility provider – and thankfully was able to have her daughter, Aaliyah.
Although we tend to talk about IVF as one treatment type, there are actually three main approaches – Natural cycle IVF, Mild stimulation IVF and In vitro maturation – which each come with different drugs and price points. Fertility clinics may also offer patients additional scans and blood tests – at extra costs.
The financial pressure is forcing couples to make tough decisions about which package they can afford, explain Ross and Hayley Park, 38 and 42 from Watford. They paid for three unsuccessful rounds in the UK before a fourth successful round in Madrid.
“We’ve spent at least £30,000. It’s probably closer to £35,000, but we decided to stop counting,” they say in a joint email.
“In this last (successful) round we chose a type that if we failed we would be able to afford it again in a relatively short period. If we had chosen one of the other methods we would have had to wait a year to save.”
Though they’ve had to make lifestyle sacrifices, the couple managed to pay for treatment out of savings, which puts them in the minority of IVF patients.
More than three quarters (78%) of couples are getting into debt over fertility treatment. In a survey of patients conducted by IVF insurer Gaia, three in five said they’d taken out some kind of loan or credit card to fund it.
Financial pressure is having a detrimental effect on couples’ mental health. The majority (78%) of those surveyed said they had experienced stress related to money, while 77% experienced sleepless nights and 73% said they felt a sense of failure.
“It is an added layer of stress, in an already stressful time,” says Natasha*, 34, from Exeter, who’s spent £15,000 on private treatment after her only-permitted NHS cycles were unsuccessful.
“With the cost of living increase, we are struggling to work out how we will pay for our next cycle. We will likely have to take a loan. We know physically, mentally, we can go again, but financially we don’t know how we will.”
“How much is too much...when do we stop?”
Frustrated by the current system, IVF patients are looking for new solutions.
Nader AlSalim, 40, from London, founded Gaia in 2020 after he and his wife spent £50,000 on four failed IVF cycles before having a successful fifth round. The insurer – underwritten by Lloyds – enables customers to pay only a percentage of the total cost of their IVF treatment if it is not successful.
“While the sum of money we paid was substantial by any measure, for me the more challenging aspect was the financial unknowns,” AlSalim tells HuffPost UK.
“It feels like a bottomless pit when you are spending money on treatment after treatment, trying to solve the problem and hoping for the best, but with no idea on the outcome. The financial questions that sparked anxiety was ‘how much is too much’? and ‘when we do stop?’”
AlSalim and his wife were categorised as having “unexplained infertility”, meaning doctors could give them very little indication of success rates. “You end up playing an emotional lottery based on inflated expectations – throwing money, chasing hope,” he says.
Brits can be especially reluctant to discuss money, but he believes it’s time to normalise conversations about the “financial trauma” of IVF.
″[We need to] discuss all aspects of it openly; pain, relationships, anxiety, money, and more,” he says. “They are interlinked.”
Though awareness-raising can create a sense of community, people like Penelope will not be helped until there are also some practical solutions.
“Everything just makes you worry in this situation,” she says of her debts racking up during her current cycle.
“This is going to be so hard, I just wish there was another way to take the strain away from what should be a joyful time of our lives. Instead, we are going to struggle for money for the foreseeable. ”
*Some surnames have been omitted to provide anonymity.
Help and support:
- Sands works to support anyone affected by the death of a baby.
- Fertility Network UK provides free, impartial information and a support line.
- Tommy’s fund research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, and provide pregnancy health information to parents.
- Saying Goodbye offers support for anyone who has suffered the loss of a baby during pregnancy, at birth or in infancy.