The 40th anniversary of the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, on July 25 has been the occasion for cracking champagne bottles and congratulatory media features. But a British IVF pioneer, Professor Lord Robert Winston, contends that celebration should be much more subdued.
Winston knows the world of assisted reproduction from the inside. A well-known figure in the UK media, he created new treatments to improve IVF and developed pre-implantation diagnosis, a technique for assessing the health of an embryo.
In an interview with The Irish News, he was scathing in his criticism of the IVF industry, which has become a US$15 billion market. In his opinion, “people are being sucked into IVF without a full recognition of exactly how low the success rate is”. Private sector fertility clinics, he says, are on a “gravy train” in the UK. Mixing the “desperation” of couples for a child and the “avarice” of private practice is a “dangerous combination”.
“The HFEA [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority] records success rate per embryo transfer, but that in itself is misleading, because a large number of women start a cycle but never get to the embryo transfer stage, either because their ovaries don't respond or because the eggs don't fertilise.”
A significant problem of dealing with infertility is that it could have “50, 60 or 70 different causes” – and some of these could be treated with means which are less invasive and stressful than IVF.
“The first thing we need to change, which is something we're not doing in reproductive medicine, is to regard infertility as a symptom … Right now, we regard it as a diagnosis and it's fundamentally wrong to offer a treatment on the basis of symptoms – because the underlying cause of the symptom will vary …
“In many cases, in-vitro fertilisation is not the best [treatment] – but it's the most profit … Unexplained infertility is a nonsense; it's a failure to make a diagnosis. People are reluctant to go through with investigations, which in my view are justified, because at the moment, so many patients are failing to get pregnant with an IVF cycle and then get pregnant after the IVF has finished.
“One of the important issues is making a diagnosis and finding other more effective simpler remedies, but most clinics are now geared up to do IVF, so they don't actually treat the underlying issue.”
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet and of BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter from which this article has been cross-posted.