Celebrating International Women's Day: How fertility choices for women have improved
On International Women’s Day it’s a good opportunity for us as a clinic to reflect on how things have changed for women and their fertility choices. In 2018 we celebrated the 40th birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby to be born through IVF treatment. Since then so many more possibilities have opened up for women including treatment for single women and same sex female couples, egg donation through egg-sharing and altruistic egg donation and in most recent years social egg freezing. We talk to Senior Fertility Counsellor Tracey Sainsbury about her views on how fertility treatment has given women more possibilities.
The need for a father
Ahead of the first Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990 heated discussions in the House of Lords took place proposing that only heterosexual married couples should be allowed access to assisted conception treatment, even unmarried heterosexual couples should be prohibited. Thankfully a victory by just one vote enabled the lesser inclusion: ‘A woman shall not be provided with treatment services unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment (including the need of that child for a father) ...’
The London Women’s Clinic pioneered access to fertility treatment for single women and same sex female couples, confirming time and time again that they had indeed taken account of the welfare of a child born from treatment where the mother or mothers had chosen to embrace regulated treatment as part of their pathway to parenthood. It would be almost 20 years later until the inclusion of the ‘need of the child for a father’ would to be reviewed; The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 2008, which, following more heated discussion saw the wording amended to ‘the need for supportive parenting’, which is still in place today.
Egg donation treatment brings hope to women beyond their natural fertile years. “The women we work with in their late forties and early fifties haven’t, as the media often suggests, prioritised their career,” says Tracey, “often it’s much more mundane reasons including that they just weren’t sure they wanted children; they didn’t feel ready; they were not in a relationship; or they hadn’t met the right partner and weren’t ready to try to conceive as a solo Mum. We would much rather women conceive when it feels right and believe that is absolutely in the best interests of any child conceived too.”
Egg-sharing was pioneered by the team behind the LWC twenty years ago and it was two female patients who came up with the idea. One needed donor eggs but would have to wait years to find a donor and one needed IVF but couldn’t afford her treatment. Egg-sharing meant that the patient requiring IVF (but with no fertility issues of her own) could share her eggs with another woman in desperate need of donor eggs who could pay the cost of treatment. They brought their idea to Mr Eric Simons, Medical Director at the time, and Dr Kamal Ahuja, the LWC’s Managing Director where in 1995 they began discussing this idea with the HFEA. It took a further 3 years for the HFEA to openly support egg-sharing.
Today, donor eggs are in more plentiful supply from altruistic donors through the London Egg Bank and improvements in technology mean that these eggs can be frozen, so they are ready for treatment when necessary without a wait. “Thankfully more people are now talking about infertility and the need for donor conception so younger generations will be better informed with more awareness of the options available to help.” Says Tracey.
In the last decade egg freezing has become a realistic possibility for many women. This means that women are no longer only able to choose whether to try to conceive but can now explore whether freezing their eggs for the future might be right for them.
The London Women’s Clinic is the largest provider of egg freezing in the UK and research from our clinic shows that between 2015 and 2016 the number of women freezing their eggs more than doubled. There are several reasons why women might choose to egg freeze and today the most popular is for social reasons. These women on average tend to be around 37 years old and single and will often either have one, two or three cycles of egg freezing depending on their fertility.
The first step is to have a fertility check or “Fertility MOT”. This includes a pelvic ultrasound scan and Anti Mullerian Hormone blood test. Alongside these results and the patient’s medical history a fertility specialist can then discuss their fertility and options for the future including egg freezing. “Women who come to the LWC might want to find out about their fertility then decide to do nothing, or nothing this year.” Says Tracey, “Other women might want to freeze their eggs or go straight on to try to conceive, with or without a partner. The right time to try, might not be at the ideal age. We can’t stop, pause or turn back the effect of aging on our eggs but egg freezing can provide a realistic option for some women. ”
Access to fertility treatment
Women have access to private fertility treatment here at the London Women’s Clinic, however this is not the same in other countries. On International Women’s Day we think of the women in same sex relationships and single women without a partner who are denied treatment in other countries. For example, in Poland, treatment is only available for heterosexual couples who are married. Donating surplus embryos anonymously is also mandatory. No embryo can be destroyed, prison therefore is a real possibility for anyone found to have destroyed an embryo.
Egg donation treatment is not permitted in Germany and double donation outlawed in France, Germany and Sweden therefore excluding women who experience premature ovarian failure, or who have had cancer treatment that has impacted their fertility.
“Today on International Women’s Day,” says Tracey “I feel proud to work with the London Women’s Clinic to listen to our patients, promote the welfare of any child conceived through fertility treatment and, providing access to women to the right fertility treatment at the right time.”
Tracey runs the LWC Harley Street’s seminar programme where women and couples can come to the clinic to understand more about how fertility works, find out more about the options available and meet others in a similar situation. Find out more on our events page.