'I wanted to write about loss in a time of a pandemic', says Laura Barton, a music journalist, about why she began taking notes on her trip to Greece for solo IVF. Fertility treatment can be challenging at the best of times but on this Today in Focus podcast, Laura is sharing her experience of undergoing IVF alone in a foreign country during a global pandemic. In March, just as European nations were rapidly enforcing lockdowns to help halt the spread of COVID-19, Laura boarded a plane to Greece, where she would undergo IVF.
To find out how and why, presenter Rachel Humphreys goes back to the beginning. Laura recounts how failed relationships and a series of miscarriages stood in stark contrast to her childhood dream of a large family. She discusses the difficulty of grieving for lost pregnancies while her friends were having babies and feeling unable to fully discuss or gain recognition for her loss. In the end, solo IVF seemed like a great option for Laura to finally become a parent.
However, after waiting months to see a consultant, Laura was simply told that her health authority did not fund solo IVF. She was being denied treatment because she was looking to become a single parent. For me, this discussion was the most important part of the podcast. It highlighted in painful personal experience both the unfairness of the postcode lottery of NHS fertility care, where different local health authorities across the country can have vastly different rules for accessing treatment (something that PET has campaigned to change), as well as the discriminatory nature of excluding single parents from IVF.
Unable to access treatment on the NHS, Laura decided to undergo IVF in Greece, on the island of Crete, where prices for private treatment were more affordable than in the UK. Despite feeling grateful that her treatment was still going ahead, the COVID-19 pandemic nonetheless added another layer of precarity, isolation and a good dose of the surreal to Laura's experience in Crete. Laura speaks of longing for home after finding out that she had lost the pregnancy, but being unable to do so immediately due to travel restrictions. She also discusses trying to find perspective in mourning for someone who never even existed at a time when so many people were losing loved ones.
Laura's account of the troubled journey of her DHL-couriered donor sperm through an increasingly locked down Europe highlights the truly international nature of many fertility journeys and the new kinds of specific complications that can arise from that during a pandemic. Personally, I wish there had been more discussion about the overall state of overseas reproductive services during the pandemic, the key issues involved and the process of risk evaluation that culminated in the decision to go ahead with overseas IVF during such an uncertain time. With fertility treatments cancelled or postponed indefinitely, this is an issue that has affected many and that I believe would have made for a timely and informative exploration.
But Laura makes it clear that she is not sharing her story to be a representative of the IVF or fertility community. Instead, hers is a deeply personal account of hope, loss and perseverance. I certainly wouldn't want to take air time away from Laura's eloquent and powerful retelling of her own personal experience. Laura manages to immerse us in her world of solitude, hope and uncertainty in a way that makes us feel and live it with her.
This is important because what is often most lacking in public discussion of IVF is understanding and compassion beyond stereotypes of childless women as either selfish or desperate. Stories like Laura's can be powerful tools for invoking more empathy and justice for those whose reproductive journeys have not panned out the way that they expected them to. Moreover, hearing Laura explore so openly her loss and sadness creates a space, as she herself says, for others to do the same, thus letting some good come of it. Indeed, despite discussing issues that are both serious and heartbreaking, Laura and Rachel's conversation somehow manages to leave you with hope.