Leading fertility specialists at the Clinic Eugin in Barcelona have taken a close look at how fertility treatment is viewed in post Brexit Britain and asks, ‘Are the British really that different from their peers in Europe?’
3,000 individuals from Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany were asked to share their views on infertility, assisted reproductive technology (ART) and social egg freezing. How have 40 years of European partnership impacted on our view of infertility – are the British more tolerant, more educated and more willing to embrace all things fertility related or has Brexit highlighted the differences between us and our former allies in the EU?
Fertility treatment is big business. It is estimated that 1 in 6 couples in the UK, some 3.5 million individuals have, or have had, difficulty in conceiving. More than 50,000 women a year undergo IVF in the UK alone and over 11,000 babies are born as a result. Almost 40 years on from the birth of Louise Brown, the first ‘test tube baby’ more than 3 million babies have been born as a result of IVF treatment pioneered in the UK. With the majority of fertility treatment having to be paid for privately it is no surprise that the fertility industry in the UK alone is estimated to be worth in excess of £600 million.
The most consistent view shared by the research is that we Europeans do not fully understand what infertility actually means; what treatments are out there or when we are most fertile. 71% of those surveyed considered themselves ill-informed about treatment and 59% considered infertility as the inability to have children full stop. 7 out of 10 people believed treatment was unaffordable and interestingly 75% of those quizzed considered it easier to obtain treatment outside of their own country. The British respondents were similarly confused with almost a fifth of those interviewed believing that women were at their most fertile after the age of 28; an age in reality when fertility begins its slow descent.
The big differences between countries identified by the research revolve around communication; support and understanding; the use of donors and the emergence of egg freezing for non- medical reasons.
The Spanish and Italians were those most likely to talk about fertility with 76% and 73% of those interviewed aware of peers who have had or were having trouble conceiving. The British on the other hand were much more reluctant to share with only 54% being aware of any fertility issues affecting people they knew.
Despite the prevalence on the so-called ‘Postcode Lottery’ of state funded fertility treatment in the UK 66% of those interviewed still placed their trust in advice provided by healthcare professionals whilst 8 out 10 thought that they would not receive sufficient support from their employers if they raised the issue of infertility in the workplace. Individuals in Italy perceived their employers to be even more unsupportive with 89% confirming that support in the workforce was non-existent.
When it came to sperm and egg donations there was general agreement from the men from each country with 1 in 2 willing to become sperm donors. Women donors were more reluctant however with 70% not willing to donate their own eggs. This figure fluctuated between countries with 58% of those interviewed in Spain being happy to donate eggs whilst in Germany only a quarter would consider it; we Britain’s stood alongside Germany with only 26% of women who would consider donating.
One of the most contentious issues within the fertility world at the moment is the vitrification or freezing of women’s eggs for non-medical purposes. The practice is supported by large American corporates such as Apple and Facebook who provide financial incentives for employers to freeze their eggs in the hope that the thawed eggs might enable them to have children at some specific point in the future. The process is relatively new, with the medical profession yet to categorically endorse the process. It is happening however without that endorsement. In those countries where the practice is allowed the Spanish respondents were the keenest with 77% indicating that they would have their eggs frozen; 1 in 2 of those quizzed from Britain would also consider freezing. The French in the research were also less likely to consider freezing with only 51% saying that they would whilst in Germany and Italy there was a very frosty attitude to the whole egg freezing process which is prohibited in those countries with only 45% and 38% respectively who would consider it.
What about tolerance and access to fertility treatment? The most tolerant were the Spaniards, of whom 86% approved of assisted reproduction for single women and 76% for treatment for individuals and couples from the LGBT community. Whilst we British were not the least intolerant – only 40% of those Italians interviewed said that members of the LGBT should receive any form of fertility treatment – there was a degree of intolerance amongst Britain’s with only 51% of those interviewed suggesting that single women should have access to treatment and 58% arguing that individuals and couples from LGBT community should be entitled to assistance.
Britain is the home of IVF but it would seem that we still have a long way to go to match our European partners in terms of talking about fertility; considering donating or receiving donated sperm and eggs; and adopting a more liberal perspective on fertility.
The hope is that post Brexit the gap between Britain and its neighbours does not widen still further.