Expensive UK fertility treatment and long waiting times related to a shortage of egg and sperm donors are the major reasons people seek fertility treatment abroad, according to the first academic study into cross-border reproductive care.
Researchers from De Montfort University (DMU), in collaboration with the universities of Sheffield, Huddersfield and Swansea, interviewed 51 people. They found that 71 per cent of those interviewed went abroad to seek treatment using donor gametes. Out of those, 46 per cent of couples were having treatment using donor eggs, 12 per cent using donor sperm and 10 per cent using donor egg and sperm.
The high cost of treatment in the UK was cited as another reason couples seek treatment abroad; most IVF is not funded by the NHS and can cost a minimum of £4,500. The participants were also interviewed about their experiences abroad. The majority of couples were very positive and reported high standards of care.
Lead researcher Professor Lorraine Culley from De Montfort University said the research has: 'helped to dispel some of the myths commonly associated with having fertility treatment abroad'.
'To date, it has often been assumed that women who seek treatment in other countries do so because they are too old to be treated in the UK. It has also been reported that if they become pregnant, they place a burden on the NHS by giving birth to twins or triplets'.
The average age of women having treatment among the participants was 38.9 years old, and only 19 per cent of those who had successful treatment experienced multiple pregnancies, compared with the most recent figure of 23 per cent in the UK.
Professor Culley said the study participants felt they were often misrepresented in the media, and felt that term 'fertility tourism' was 'negative and inaccurate, especially given the considerable effort and emotional upheaval involved when undertaking treatment overseas'.
The study reveals some of the possible consequences of the egg and sperm donor shortage. Tony Rutherford, the chairman of the British Fertility Society (BFS) said: 'the UK sector is making positive moves to combat this shortage'. He said the BFS was working with the Department of Health to promote sperm donor recruitment and improve donor numbers.
Mr Rutherford added: 'the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) are reviewing regulation surrounding egg and sperm donation with a report due in early 2011'.
As to the reasons for donor shortages, Professor Culley explained that the issue of the impact of anonymity on donor availability in the UK is complex. A small number of study participants wanted to ensure donor anonymity (and hence needed to travel abroad) and yet others wanted additional donor information than what would be available to them in the UK.
The motivation for the change in the law reducing donor anonymity was the impact on the donor-conceived offspring, but, Professor Culley says: 'we might have to accept that the impact of this could well be to act as a disincentive to those who might otherwise consider altruistic donation'.