The HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority), which governs UK fertility clinics, is calling for clinics to be more upfront with patients when offering ‘add-on’ treatments, and to only offer treatments which are scientifically proven to increase the chances of a pregnancy.
‘Add ons’ are extra treatments which are often offered to IVF patients, on top of their standard treatments. The problem is that a lot of these add-ons aren’t backed up by decent scientific evidence that they actually work, so the jury is still out on whether they will help.
I’ve worked with many people who have been through IVF and they are not naive. As anyone who has been through treatment knows, they will have spent hours researching treatments and will be experts before their first appointment. These people deserve the right to be properly informed, and to choose to have treatments developed from solid, scientific research.
Through my work in the fertility sector, I know how much people are willing to sacrifice to have a baby. The struggle to conceive is all-consuming, relentless and lonely. The treatment is brutal for the body, and what should take place in the private intimacy of your own home is done in a sterile room with bright lights and doctors in scrubs. Patients are vulnerable and put all their trust, hopes and dreams in their doctors’ hands.
This is why it’s so good that the HFEA has published a consensus statement with 10 other leading fertility groups, which says that clinics should only be offering add-ons if there is proper evidence that they are effective.
It has also published a traffic light rating system which grades the add-ons as green, amber or red. Green treatments are those with good quality research to show that the treatment works, red treatments are those with no evidence that they work and amber treatments are somewhere in the middle.
For example, ‘assisted hatching’ is rated red. This is where embryologists use acid, lasers or other tools to help the embryo to break free from its layer of proteins, which it needs to do before it implants in the womb. There isn’t any evidence that this treatment increases the chance of a pregnancy, and it could even damage the embryos. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) also warn against this treatment being used as it’s not proven to work.
Clinics operate in a privileged space, with the power to help create families. They must not abuse this, and increasing their accountability is a good thing. Their patients may have gone through years and years of unsuccessful rounds of IVF, and be wiling to spend all they have if they are told that it might help their chances.
Infertility doesn’t target the rich, and it doesn’t care whether you can afford IVF or not. Patients don’t have an endless supply of money to pay for treatments and are painfully aware that there is a limit to the number of cycles they can afford to have. They shouldn’t be encouraged to spend more money on treatments which may not increase their chances of having a child.
It’s unethical to promote and charge for experimental treatments which are not proven to work, and I’m glad the HFEA is doing something to stop this from happening. Fertility treatment is hard enough already.
Suzi Denton is a fertility lawyer and blogger, and mother to two children