Data recently obtained by the Sunday Times newspaper, via a Freedom of Information Act enquiry to the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), show that an average of 80 pregnancies achieved through IVF treatment are terminated each year.
Less than half of these abortions are undertaken by women aged between 18 and 34 years, the healthiest time for a woman to get pregnant, when complication rates and fetal abnormality rates are low. Nonetheless, this has prompted speculation that the abortions are carried out for 'social' rather than medical reasons.
The figures include women who paid for the £4000 to £8000 IVF treatment, as well as those who received it free on the NHS. Also included are women who would have had abortions for medical reasons, such as selective reduction, where fetuses in a multiple pregnancy are terminated to reduce the risks to the mother and babies.
'For infertile people, overcoming the problem becomes a goal in itself', said Ann Furedi, head of BPAS, formerly the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who believes that every abortion doctor in the UK sees at least one patient a year who requests a termination after IVF.
'Sometimes it is only when women get pregnant that they can allow themselves to ask the question about whether it is really what they want', added Furedi.
Some fertility doctors expressed surprise at the finding. Professor Bill Ledger, head of reproductive and developmental medicine at Sheffield University, said that he had no idea there were so many post-IVF abortions. 'These women can't be surprised to be pregnant, you can't have an IVF pregnancy by accident', he said.
The HFEA released a statement regarding pregnancy terminations following IVF, saying that 'IVF is not a procedure that is undertaken lightly, and we know what it means personally to the many women who make this decision every year. All patients who undergo IVF are assessed, as are the implications for any child that might be born, in advance of the decision to treat'.
The HFEA states that the number of terminations following IVF is less than one per cent each year, and that although it does not collect data about the legal grounds for termination, it does collect information (where disclosed) about the reasons for termination. Going by this information, the number of 'social' or 'psychological' cases appear to be few.
The findings have sparked fears from ex-Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe that women undergoing IVF are treating babies like 'designer goods', and that if the law was applied correctly, they would not be able to undergo abortions simply because they have changed their minds.
Britain's most successful fertility doctor, Mohamed Taranissi, has called for an enquiry from the HFEA. 'It's a matter that should be looked at. The HFEA should be much more open with the data they have', he said.