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King's College London - Health: More than a medical matter

Charity survey shows UK attitudes to fertility treatments

12 November 2006

By Dr Kirsty Horsey

Appeared in BioNews 384

New research detailing the UK public's views on in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and related fertility issues has been published. The research was carried out by YouGov on behalf of the UK charity Progress Educational Trust in October 2006, in the form of two online survey questionnaires, to which a random nationally representative sample of 7,697 GB adults aged above 18 was invited. There were 4,012 respondents.

When asked whether all people have a right to have a child of their own, one third of those surveyed (32 per cent) strongly agreed, with a further 23 per cent agreeing 'a little'. However, there seemed to be no strong opinion among the respondents about whether society should make it easier for people to have children earlier in life. Under a third (28 per cent) of respondents agreed with this statement, 33 per cent gave no opinion and 31 per cent said that they neither agreed nor disagreed, while 37 per cent disagreed with this statement. Nevertheless, two thirds of those surveyed (66 per cent) agreed that modern lifestyles are forcing people to delay starting a family for too long - many were aware that having children at a later age was a common factor in the cause of infertility (76 per cent). However, 69 per cent of respondents said that they felt that women should accept that choosing a career over children may mean they cannot conceive naturally.

Other causes of infertility were thought to be medical conditions and treatments (85 per cent), alcohol and drug misuse (80 per cent) and genetic factors (76 per cent). When asked to pick the single most common factor in infertility, 17 per cent chose medical conditions, 16 per cent chose genetic factors and 14 per cent chose age. The survey also showed that 19 per cent of UK adults believe that one in 20 couples are affected by infertility, and the same percentage thought the figure was one in 10.

When asked about their knowledge of fertility treatments available, 37 per cent said it was 'poor or non-existent', compared to only 22 per cent who said it was 'good or better'. The majority (57 per cent) agreed that modern science should help infertile people to have a child of their own, although 70 per cent said that alternatives to fertility treatment should be promoted more widely. And just under half of the respondents said that too much money is ploughed into IVF research when we should be investing in educating people about the avoidable factors that lead to infertility. Respondents' knowledge of the cost of IVF was shown to be fairly good. Twenty-eight per cent said that they thought a single cycle of IVF costs between £2,500 and £4,999 and a further 13 per cent said they thought it cost between £5,000 and £7,499.

Half of those surveyed support IVF, whereas 14 per cent generally opposed it and one per cent said they would never countenance it for any reason. Half said that they agreed with the use of IVF by people who wish to avoid having a child with a genetic condition. Almost half (48 per cent) said that the media gives the impression that IVF has a high success rate and 51 per cent agreed that the media seems to show that that anyone can get IVF if they want it. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents, when told the true success rate of IVF, felt that this was not well publicised by the media when reporting on IVF - 25 per cent were surprised by the figure.

When people were asked if they would use IVF themselves, only 45 per cent said they would consider it, compared to 17 per cent who said they would not. Generally, the respondents thought that fertility treatments should primarily be available to married couples (85 per cent) and unmarried couples who had been together for more than three years (57 per cent). The majority also said that IVF patients should be evaluated before being accepted for treatment, particularly if public funds were used. Factors such as patients' age, mental health, relationship status and whether they had any existing children were the main things respondents thought should be taken into account, with over two thirds citing them. However, just over one third (36 per cent) thought that patients' sexuality should be taken into account.

When looking at more specific uses of IVF, 46 per cent of respondents said that they supported the use of IVF and related technologies by couples who wish to have a healthy child to help cure a sick sibling. Even so, this support (and the counter-point) did appear to be conditional upon the new baby being wanted for its own sake. Surprisingly, only eight per cent said that they would support the use of IVF and sex-selection for 'family balancing' purposes, with 74 per cent saying they would oppose this use, the main reason given in opposition being that the attitude was 'selfish' and that 'all children are a blessing'. Only three per cent said that they would support the use of IVF to select physical or other characteristics for a child. A large majority (79 per cent) were against the use of IVF by people aged over 50.

Seventeen per cent of people surveyed thought that 'fertility tourism' should be allowed, whereas 39 per cent opposed it. The main reason they felt this way was the feeling that people should be able to take advantage of more affordable treatment in other countries (78 per cent said this). However, some said that it is wrong to package treatment abroad to make money out of people and others that clinics abroad offer unacceptable treatments such as IVF for older women (58 per cent and 56 per cent respectively).

In terms of what to do with surplus embryos created in IVF, only 16 per cent said that they thought embryo freezing should not be allowed, 60 per cent of these saying it was because creating babies in this way is 'not natural'. Fifty-four per cent said that they consider an embryo to be a human life and it should therefore not be frozen. Support was lower for embryo freezing if it was to be used to delay having a family rather than for those couples who may become infertile through illness or treatment.

Using embryos for research was generally considered to be acceptable by those surveyed. Half of the respondents agreed with the statement 'it is better to freeze spare embryos and use them for research than to discard them', whereas 32 per cent disagreed. Roughly equal proportions (about one third) of the respondents considered an embryo to be a life, not to be a life or neither agreed nor disagreed that it was, and 41 per cent thought that 'spare' frozen embryos should be used for medical research, with 35 per cent saying that they should be donated to other couples undergoing treatment. Another 35 per cent thought that spare embryos should be discarded.
In relation to the use of donated gametes, 71 per cent thought that it is acceptable for a man to donate his sperm to infertile couples compared to only 33 per cent who approved of donation to 'non-traditional' families (for example, single women or female same-sex couples). Similar figures were found in relation to egg donation. Without more knowledge of the situation, a third of respondents believed that egg and sperm donors should be paid - and this figure increased to 40 per cent when the participants were told there was a shortage of donors in the UK and that payment may help to alleviate this. Twenty-eight per cent thought that donor anonymity should not be allowed compared to 58 per cent who thought it should. Respondents were told that recent changes to the law - meaning that donors can no longer be anonymous - appears to have caused a decline in the numbers of people becoming sperm and egg donors; upon hearing this, slightly more people felt that the right to anonymity should be available (63 per cent).

A summary of the survey results can be obtained here.

Dr Kirsty Horsey is Contributing Editor at BioNews. She is coeditor of Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and coauthor of Tort Law (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and Skills For Law Students (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).




31 January 2011 - by Tamara Hirsch 
A recent review paper has emphasised the need for improved provision of fertility information, especially regarding age-associated risks, as the trend for women having children later in life continues.... [Read More]
17 December 2006 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
On Thursday 14 December, UK Public Health Minister Caroline Flint announced the publication of the British Government's proposals for a major overhaul of the law on assisted human reproduction and embryo research. The proposals, contained in a new 'White Paper', follow an extensive public consultation exercise... [Read More]
12 November 2006 - by Khadija Ibrahim 
Issues surrounding infertility and reproductive medicine are rarely out of the news - delaying motherhood, egg and sperm donation, embryo testing and access to fertility treatment, to name just a few. But the published opinions triggered by this extensive media coverage have tended to be those of a select few doctors... [Read More]
12 November 2006 - by Heidi Nicholl 
According to the UK's Sunday Times newspaper last week, clinics in the UK are offering couples the chance to choose the sex of their child, a practice that is illegal in Britain unless done to avoid a serious genetic disorder in the resulting child, by referring them... [Read More]

12 November 2006 - by Khadija Ibrahim 
Issues surrounding infertility and reproductive medicine are rarely out of the news - delaying motherhood, egg and sperm donation, embryo testing and access to fertility treatment, to name just a few. But the published opinions triggered by this extensive media coverage have tended to be those of a select few doctors... [Read More]

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