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IVF alternatives may be simpler and more effective

NHS's over-reliance on IVF obscures simpler and more effective remedy

Dr Robert Hardie, President, Catholic Medical Association (UK)
4 January 2013, 9:00  
This article was originally published on the Tablet Blog in January  2013

An article in Tuesday's Daily Mail highlighted the vast numbers of human embryos that have been discarded in the process of treating infertility by in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Figures were released by Health Minister Lord Howe in a response to questions from peers about the level of waste generated by IVF. Crossbench peer Lord Alton said in response to the findings that embryos were being created and thrown away in 'industrial numbers', with casual indifference, and that most people would have no idea that this happened on such an alarming scale.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) has gathered figures from IVF processes since 1991. They show that 3,546,818 embryos have been created and fewer than half (1,388,433 embryos) were actually implanted into infertile women with the intention of starting a pregnancy. Of these only 235,480 survived to a pregnancy (approximately one in six, with the others simply not surviving the process). This means that of all the embryos taken, only 6.64 per cent ended up on the road to becoming another human being. Of the rest, 1,691,090 were discarded unused and a further 23,480 discarded after being taken out of storage.

These are the raw figures of the IVF industry, which to be fair has done its best in its secular way to give infertile couples children (albeit at a horrific cost of small human lives). However the industry is often used unnecessarily as the sole remedy for female infertility - and frequently in ignorance of extremely good, but less secular, alternatives. Most infertility clinics are IVF clinics, part-NHS and part privately-run. In short, IVF, aside from the happiness it has brought to some families, is big business.

Catholic teaching insists that two fundamental values continue to be respected when seeking to conceive a child: the dignity of the child conceived and the true meaning of marriage. Methods that endanger the life or wellbeing of the child are immoral; so too are methods in which spouses become parents other than by each other. The conception of new life takes place morally only as a direct act of marital intercourse. A child is a gift (as are all things) and not a right, and the desire for a child cannot justify the industrialised 'production' of offspring.

The Church fully supports all methods therefore that assist in this natural process. So often the remedy to a couple's infertility lies in education and awareness of a woman's fertile phase in her monthly cycle by cycle-charting, sometimes coupled with the administration of hormones to augment ovarian activity.

In my own practice over a professional lifetime, a good number of pregnancies were achieved in our own general practice by means of teaching the Billing's Ovulation Method which involves charting each menstrual cycle.

In addition, Natural Procreative Technology (NaProTech) provided by the Life Fertility Care Clinic offers appropriate surgical, medical and allied treatments while supporting the natural conjugal act to married couples (Catholic and from other faiths). The medical causes of infertility that are dealt with effectively range from primary and secondary male and/or female infertility to repeated miscarriages often of unknown aetiology.

Sadly, finding the alternative medical help that supports the Church's teaching can be extremely difficult through the standard NHS channels. An infertile couple will quickly get put on the IVF regime because that's the way it's done; it's quicker but more expensive and from the results we have, no more successful. Whereas if you try less invasive, more specific treatment such as history-taking, hormone treatment and so on, a significant number of women seeking medical help to conceive will become pregnant.

In my experience as a GP, the majority of people referred for IVF could benefit more from these more natural methods, even those women nearing the end of their reproductive phase. It is only those unfortunate women whose fallopian tubes are very severely damaged who could benefit (eventually) from IVF if their own personal moral and ethical code allowed.

Reported pregnancy rates using NaProTech can be as good as an average of 52.8 per 100 couples - despite failed attempts to publish due to the reluctance of many journals that claimed there was too little interest. Even when success has not been possible, couples regularly express their appreciation of the additional insight and understanding of their own particular issues.

Overall whatever our limited success and understanding, from whatever discipline we come, even the IVF market - human life is always a good, for it is a 'manifestation of God in the world, a sign of His Presence, a trace of His Glory' (Evangelium vitae, 34)

Dr Robert Hardie is a retired GP and the president of the Catholic Medical Association (UK)

This article was originally published on the Tablet Blog in January  2013