IVF chief: We must let women freeze eggs for free on the NHS

Ex­pert de­mands help for 30 to 35-year- olds to de­lay moth­er­hood and avert na­tional ‘fer­til­ity cri­sis’

The Mail on Sunday - - News - By Sanchez Man­ning, Nick Craven and Jake Hur­furt

A LEAD­ING IVF ex­pert to­day calls on the NHS to pro­vide free egg freez­ing for child­less women in a ‘rev­o­lu­tion­ary’ plan to avert Bri­tain’s loom­ing fer­til­ity cri­sis.

Con­sul­tant gy­nae­col­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Geeta Nar­gund ar­gues that her ‘rad­i­cal ac­tion’ – which would cost the Health Ser­vice hun­dreds of mil­lions of pounds – is the only way to pro­tect women’s fer­til­ity as in­creas­ing numbers de­lay moth­er­hood for eco­nomic or so­cial rea­sons.

Prof Nar­gund, in an im­pas­sioned plea to Health Sec­re­tary Matt Han­cock, ar­gues that her plan for the tax­payer to fund women aged from 30 to 35 to ‘bank’ their eggs would al­low thou­sands to take ad­van­tage of a pri­vate pro­ce­dure that costs be­tween £3,000 and £5,000 a time and up to £400 a year to store them.

At present, most women who freeze their eggs do so when they are older than 35, which means the qual­ity is poorer, with a lower chance of fer­til­i­sa­tion.

While Prof Nar­gund admits her plan may seem ‘an ex­pen­sive lux­ury’, she claims it could save the NHS money in the long run by im­prov­ing suc­cess rates when the same women later opt for pub­licly funded IVF treat­ments, re­duc­ing the num­ber of ex­pen­sive and emo­tion­ally drain­ing re­peat at­tempts.

Us­ing bet­ter qual­ity eggs would also lead to a lower risk of mis­car­riage and chro­mo­some ab­nor­mal­i­ties, while re­duc­ing the need for egg donors, she ar­gues.

Prof Nar­gund told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We don’t want to deny a whole gen­er­a­tion of women from freez­ing be­cause it’s too ex­pen­sive. These women are pay­ing into our econ­omy through their Na­tional In­sur­ance con­tri­bu­tions.

‘ How is it fair that they com­pletely shoul­der all the costs them­selves to the ben­e­fit of our so­ci­ety and the econ­omy?

‘The state must take re­spon­si­bil­ity. Hav­ing chil­dren is not just for your­self. It is di­rectly ben­e­fit­ing so­ci­ety in its pros­per­ity be­cause with­out chil­dren who is go­ing to pay for pen­sions?’

Cal­cu­lat­ing the cost of what Prof Nar­gund calls a ‘rev­o­lu­tion­ary step for­ward in em­pow­er­ing women’ would de­pend on the take-up rate. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fig­ures from the Of­fice for Na­tional Sta­tis­tics, an es­ti­mated 642,000 women in Eng­land and Wales aged be­tween 30 and 35 were child­less in 2016.

If all of them opted to have their eggs frozen at a cost of £4,000 each, it would to­tal £2.57 bil­lion, equat­ing to an an­nual cost of £428 mil­lion.

The an­nual cost of IVF treat­ment to the NHS is about £140 mil­lion, but the num­ber of Clin­i­cal Com­mis­sion­ing Groups pre­pared to fund it is de­creas­ing rapidly. CCGs are the bod­ies re­spon­si­ble for the plan­ning and com­mis­sion­ing of health care ser­vices for their lo­cal area.

The num­ber of CCGs in Eng­land of­fer­ing three cy­cles of IVF – rec­om­mended by The Na­tional In­sti­tute for Health and Care Ex­cel­lence – to el­i­gi­ble women un­der 40 has halved in the past five years.

Ac­cord­ing to the Hu­man Fer­til­i­sa­tion and Em­bry­ol­ogy Au­thor­ity, 1,272 women in the UK reg­is­tered

‘Hav­ing more chil­dren increases pros­per­ity’

to have IVF treat­ment with­out a part­ner in 2016 – com­pared with 942 in 2014. In 2016, IVF clin­ics car­ried out 1,173 cy­cles of egg freez­ing, up ten per cent from the pre­vi­ous year.

Prof Nar­gund, who works at St Ge­orge’s Hos­pi­tal in Lon­don, has long ar­gued for fer­til­ity lessons to be in­cluded in the Na­tional Cur­ricu­lum so that teenagers learn about the dan­gers of de­lay­ing par­ent­hood. Re­ac­tion to her call was mixed. Aileen Feeney, chief ex­ec­u­tive of char­ity Fer­til­ity Net­work UK, said: ‘ Any­thing that gives women the op­por­tu­nity to pre­serve their fer­til­ity is a good thing and we would ab­so­lutely sup­port this.’

Con­sul­tant gy­nae­col­o­gist Stu­art Camp­bell, a for­mer pro­fes­sor of ob­stet­rics and gy­nae­col­ogy at St Ge­orge’s, said: ‘In a way, egg freez­ing is the last great free­dom for women, so eco­nom­i­cally if it’s im­por­tant for the coun­try to have a young pop­u­la­tion then it is worth fund­ing egg freez­ing on the NHS.

‘The Gov­ern­ment should con­sider mak­ing it a pol­icy to help women have ba­bies as young as pos­si­ble.’

But Adam Balen, pro­fes­sor of re­pro­duc­tive medicine at Leeds

NHS Trust and chair­man of the Fer­til­ity Education Ini­tia­tive, said: ‘Hav­ing chil­dren is an eco­nomic ben­e­fit to so­ci­ety, and even treat­ment such as IVF is cost-ef­fec­tive. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet to call on the Gov­ern­ment to fund so­cial egg freez­ing.

‘If the NHS were to fund the rec­om­mended amount of IVF for ev­ery­one, rather than fund­ing one or no cy­cles, they would have a de­cent chance of hav­ing a baby. But the law at the mo­ment only al­lows freez­ing for ten years, so there is a dan­ger if you freeze too young you may not ac­tu­ally be able to use your eggs when you want to.’

Mail on Sunday colum­nist Dr El­lie Can­non said: ‘I don’t think NHS stake­hold­ers would be keen to be fund­ing egg freez­ing at the mo­ment. I ap­pre­ci­ate this may seem cruel to many women, but I sup­pose you have to weigh up these things against de­mands we face ev­ery day in the NHS, such as pre­scrib­ing ex­pen­sive cancer drugs or car­ry­ing out costly op­er­a­tions for chil­dren with cere­bral palsy.

‘ In that sort of en­vi­ron­ment, I am not sure egg freez­ing can be jus­ti­fied.’

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