UK fertility treatment trends: what’s next?

8 July 2020

The HFEA’s latest data, published on 30 June 2020, paints a largely positive picture of fertility treatment in the UK in 2018 before the Covid-19 pandemic. Its main points and analysis indicate that IVF birth rates had increased for patients under 43 years and that on average, about one in every four embryos transferred in 2018 resulted in a live birth. However, the massive disruption, uncertainty and loss caused by the advent of the global Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our public and private lives. The full ramifications of this are only just beginning to be seen and felt. In turn, this raises challenging questions and difficult issues concerning our current and future health and fertility landscape, as well as our ability to create and protect our families.

Fertility Treatment in the UK in 2018

Key points arising from the HFEA’s 2018 statistics indicate that:

  • After rapid annual growth in demand for fertility treatment in the UK, the number of cycles had begun to stabilise with 68,724 cycles of IVF and 5,651 donor insemination cycles.
  • IVF birth rates had continued to increase for all patients aged under 43, with the average birth rate per embryo transferred at 23% in 2018.
  • Embryo and egg storage increased fivefold to just under 9,000 freezing cycles in 2018, as freezing became more common in the UK.
  • The average age of an IVF patient in the UK was 35.3 years in 2018.
  • Use of donor eggs could result in higher birth rates for older fertility patients, but were not widely used.

This upbeat picture was mirrored in a reasonably widespread pre-pandemic optimism and hope for the future.

What’s next?

Leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were greater freedoms and more scope to form and enjoy personal relationships, make plans for the future, decide to try for a baby and embark upon fertility treatment and assisted conception. The economy was buoyant compared with the economic devastation brought about by the Covid-19 crisis. Access to healthcare and routine medical checks to help safeguard our health and wellbeing was widely available compared to the restrictions and healthcare limitations we now face in the climate of Covid-19. As such, we had greater individual ownership over our day-to-day lives and there was less emphasis on our collective needs, welfare and security.

Living and adapting to a world rife with Covid-19 is undoubtedly tough. With only limited treatment options and without a cure, the virus can strike anyone, anywhere at anytime ranging from little or no symptoms through to severe disease and death. Experts are concerned that up to two million routine breast, bowel and cervical cancer screenings may have been missed in the UK as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. If medical delays continue, it is feared that there could be anywhere from 7,000 to 35,000 additional cancer deaths in the UK within a year. This is on top of the growing number of official fatalities caused directly by contracting Covid-19, which currently stands at around 44,391 in the UK. Furthermore, whilst we slowly begin to emerge from lockdown in the UK, we are already seeking localised Covid-19 outbreaks in pubs, the city of Leicester and hospitals. We also face the risk of a second wave of the virus later in the year and over the winter.

This new stark reality and unprecedented level of uncertainty will continue to impact our thoughts, options and actions both now and into the future. It will continue to impact our personal lives, relationships, families and family building arrangements. In doing so, we could see new as well as intensification of existing fertility and family trends, including:

  • More delayed parenthood.
  • More egg, sperm and embryo freezing.
  • A further increase in the average age of an IVF patient in the UK.
  • Increased focus on posthumous conception.
  • More demand for import and export of eggs, sperm and embryos.
  • More pressure on personal relationships and family life.

This rapidly evolving fertility and family landscape creates a range of legal and wider issues that require careful consideration and management. Specialist fertility and family law advice helps effectively navigate many complex legal issues, including:

  • Legal options where women facing rapidly declining age-related fertility and loss of opportunity of fertility treatment and conception (e.g. fertility preservation and maximisation, management of existing personal relationships and implications of using donor gametes).
  • Difficulties with storage and use of frozen eggs, sperm and embryos in fertility treatment in the UK (e.g. lack of consent and expiry of storage terms).
  • Issues associated with import of frozen gametes and embryos into the UK for use in fertility treatment and surrogacy (e.g. due to anonymous and commercially obtained gametes and embryos which engage UK public policy restrictions)
  • Issues associated with the export of frozen gametes and embryos abroad for use in fertility treatment and surrogacy (e.g. lack of consent and storage term difficulties).
  • Unexpected death of a loved-one and related issues associated with posthumous storage and use of eggs, sperm and embryos in fertility treatment (e.g. due to an accident, illness including Covid-19).
  • Options and legal issues associated with fertility preservation and maximisation.
  • Uncertainty around availability of egg and sperm donors and surrogates.
  • Delays in medical diagnosis and consequent treatment and associated impact on individual fertility.
  • Issues associated with assisted conception using frozen gametes or embryos involving a known donor, co-parent or surrogate (e.g. legal parentage, financial responsibility and dispute mitigation).
  • Care and upbringing of children following a dispute with an ex-partner, parent, donor or surrogate.

Need a fertility lawyer or a family lawyer? If you would like to discuss your situation or you require specialist fertility and family law advice and assistance please contact Louisa by email  or by telephone +44 (0)20 7965 8399.

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