Lord Robert Winston has spoken out to criticise IVF clinics, citing corruption within the industry and the exploitation of couples being charged inflated prices for IVF treatment and associated genetic tests. The Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London, speaking at the Guardian Hay festival, also criticised the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for failing to protect women seeking IVF treatment.
Lord Winston claims that the industry has become corrupted by the vast sums of money it has attracted, with the IVF industry in the UK now worth up to £500 million per year. In 2005 more than 30,000 patients underwent more than 40,000 treatment cycles. There are 85 licensed fertility clinics in the UK, where the costs of private treatment are between £4,000 and £8,000 per IVF cycle.
Lord Winston levelled the charge that IVF has become a 'massive commercial industry', able to exploit women through their desperation to obtain the technology that will enable them to become pregnant. Lord Winston criticised clinics in London that were making huge sums of money through IVF, stating that, 'it is really rather depressing to consider that some IVF treatments in London are charged at 10 times the fee that is charged in Melbourne, where there is excellent medicine, where IVF is just as successful, where they have comparable salaries'.
The fertility expert also criticised the myriad of genetic tests offered to couples undergoing IVF, which were often misrepresented, invariably costly, and not, in his opinion, clinically justified. One such technique claims to use florescent markers to stain defective parts of an embryo's chromosomes, and is used to identify unviable embryos. However, the most advanced form of the test can only be used to examine a small part of an embryo's genome. The test is sold to couples at £2,000 a time with the claim that it enables the selection of healthy embryos for implantation. Lord Winston has countered that the test cannot possibly obtain such knowledge about the genome, and assertions that an embryo has been identified as chromosomally healthy are lies.
Lord Winston also criticised the HFEA for its poor record on providing information for couples and for failing to protect women against exploitation by IVF clinics. In addition, he said that the HFEA had not 'limited the number of unscientific treatments people have access to, it doesn't prevent sex selection and all sorts of other things people don't like because there are all sorts of ways around the law'.
In response, an HFEA spokesman defended the organisation, stating that to their knowledge all IVF clinics abided by the regulations. The HFEA stated that, 'all hospitals and clinics that offer IVF treatment in the UK are regulated by the HFEA. We do have strict guidelines they follow, including a code of practice that clearly states that sex selection for social reasons is not allowed'. The HFEA maintains that any patient wishing to undergo IVF had the relevant information available to them.