One in ten British babies will soon be born via IVF. So why is it taboo?

Stigma and superstition are confining a crucial, life-changing conversation to coy and cutesy internet forums

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

As a result of a ruptured appendix, I am infertile. The appendicitis was followed by gangrene and peritonitis, which permanently blocked my fallopian tubes and left me having to do IVF for a chance to have my own child.

I have never felt shame about my situation but I have felt isolation and grief, both of which would be very much more bear-able if people were prepared to talk openly about in-vitro fertilisation — to dispel the taboo that still surrounds it.

IVF in its various forms is incredibly common these days. More than 2.5 million babies born in the past seven years began their life in a Petri dish. For various reasons, some known, some unknown, overall birth rates in the West are falling rapidly and infertility is rising: pretty soon as many as one in every ten children born in this country will owe its life to fertility treatment.

You might reasonably think, then, that when I underwent my first (failed) IVF cycle, I’d have been surrounded by friends and acquaintances keen to give advice and share their experiences with me. The truth is that I struggled to find any, and when I raised the subject in public people either shifted uncomfortably — as though I had transgressed a social boundary — or reacted with fascination, wanting to know all the ins and outs.

Everyone I spoke to knew someone who had been through it, but no one would admit to having done IVF themselves. One couple I met at a dinner party knew intimate details of a ‘friend’s’ treatment that they were only too willing to share. When I later discovered this same couple had non-identical twins, their expertise suddenly made sense. They did subsequently own up but I was disheartened that they’d been so coy at first.

To a certain extent, I understand all this reluctance to talk about IVF. Back in the 1980s when the first ‘test-tube babies’ were being born, patients were under pressure to keep their treatment secret. The receptionist at the pioneering Bourn Hall Clinic, Vivien Collins, has spoken of women expressing disgust that she worked in a ‘test centre where they made babies’. And that horrified reaction, the idea that IVF involves some sinister process, still lingers today.

Last spring the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana branded IVF children ‘synthetic’, which provoked a public spat with Elton John. For most people of my parents’ generation, IVF is an unknown and therefore alarming.

The other reason for keeping schtum is superstition. Couples feel that if they talk about their hopes, they may not come true. And even if all goes well, having a IVF friend can be hard. It might seem sensible to buddy up with another patient in the clinic, to share the ups and downs, the trials of nightly injections and invasive scans — but statistically only one woman in three will end up with a baby at the end of the agonising process. How do you commiserate with your pal or continue a friendship when you’re no longer in the same boat? So women in fertility-clinic waiting rooms traditionally stare down at their iPads and stalk fertility forums looking for advice, rather than turn to those beside them.

A warning to anyone thinking of IVF: there’s something both glutinous and ghoulish about those fertility forums. It’s a euphemistic world where the language of relationships is infantilised and creepy acronyms are universally adopted. There are no boyfriends or husbands, only ‘DH’ (dear husband) for even the most useless man. Rather than being wished luck, you are ‘sent babydust’ and women’s tales of miscarriage are peppered with tragicomic flying-baby emoticons. You must navigate your way through the BFNs and the BFPs (that’s big fat negative and big fat positive) and my personal favourite BD (baby dance — yes, that’s sexual intercourse) to try to make sense of your experience.

The forums make me wish all the more that we could, as a society, talk openly and sensibly about infertility. The women online are clearly tough: they’ve endured numerous, arduous treatment cycles, not to mention miscarriages. Yet online they communicate in the written equivalent of baby voices. We do everyone a disservice by being coy.

If we talked about it more, we’d all know that fertility treatment isn’t the preserve of the spoiled, rich or vain — it’s available on the NHS and rightly so. With fewer people able to buy a home in their twenties, more women working and life expectancy increasing, it’s only going to get more common for women to have children later in life. And as mothers get older and treatment more effective and cheaper, the ratio of assisted to natural births is only going to narrow. We should be teaching our daughters not just how to avoid getting pregnant, but what to do if they can’t conceive. It would help women plan their families better if girls knew from the start about all the difficulties of a late-in-life pregnancy.

Because of the stigma still hovering over IVF, the science is moving faster than public awareness, and this is dangerous as well as unnecessary. Many IVF clinics are now offering both ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection, which means the doctors can select a healthy-looking sperm) and genetic screening. But we just don’t know how safe either of these procedures are, or whether they’re more likely to lead to babies with birth defects. The frontier children are only just reaching adulthood and studies into potential health risks remain inconclusive. If the public were informed and interested, they’d be pushing for the NHS to fund rigorous studies and hold unscrupulous clinics to account.

There should be no shame at all in having an IVF baby, or in undergoing IVF. The children born of IVF are meticulously planned for and warmly welcomed, more so than any ‘Oops, the condom split’ baby. If I’m ever lucky enough to have a child, and to find myself in receipt of those awkward questions about reproduction that every mother is asked, I’m going to tell my child the truth about how they came to be, because they should be proud.

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  • Norah Tucker

    This article is so true-to-life and necessary! Every
    word in this text is true and 100 % meets nowadays situation. It can be seen
    rather strange and conflicting situation. IVF, as well as surrogacy or egg
    donation procedures are extremely popular today among infertile people. As of
    them there are a great number of couples who can’t conceive a baby in a natural
    way. According to the medical statistics every fifth married couple faces with
    the infertility problem! Even those ones who have no enough money to conduct
    ART program earn and save funds in order to use assisted methods of
    reproductive medicine sooner or later. If you visit center for reproductive
    medicine for example in Ukraine you will see lines of patients who go from all
    over the world only to have an opportunity to conduct ART program. And it can
    be easily explained. IVF is the only way for infertile to have children! It’s
    the only solution of the infertility problem as of today! Nevertheless people
    can’t come out into the open. Sometimes it happens due to the legal bans in own
    country, sometimes due to the incomprehensible and groundless shame people feel
    conducting IVF or surrogacy. I consider that’s wrong, let’s begin to express
    own wishes and points of view openly and without fears. Why can we say about
    dentist visit but can’t even notice that we have visited reproductive clinic?
    In fact, IVF has been becoming the same, common thing as visit to dentist.
    Thank you dear article writer for this story and for your point of view!

  • IVFyes

    This is a brilliant article. There shouldn’t be a stigma to having IVF, but the reality is that it can go to the very heart of a couples desires and there is a cult of parenthood that by ‘coming out’ people feel that they can get hurt all over.

    There is a real public policy challenge as a result of the silence. While IVF is available on the NHS it is subject to a postcode lottery. NICE recommend three cycles of treatment to have the greatest chance of success, but the vast majority offer just one, and a few none. IVFyes is a volunteer organisation raising the profile of this issue and always looking for people to be case studies. If this article has persuaded you to try and tackle a base unfairness, and to change the way society discusses infertility, please get in touch. http://www.ivfyes.org

  • William_Brown

    Taboo? Really? Maybe amongst your mates, Polly, but not at all so in my friends and family’s experience. Difficult, exhausting, gruelling, an emotional rollercoaster, expensive even, but taboo – no. Maybe we’ve been fortunate…

    • ill-liberal

      I think you’re experience is more normal. I can’t imagine anyone I know who wouldn’t happily discuss the matter, plenty of people go through it and happily talk about it.

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  • Caroline

    Many people are afraid of talking about such things as
    IVF because of the strict legislation at home. A lot of countries ban such
    procedures connected with the ART. According to the European Society of Human
    Reproduction and Embryology one in seven couples in the world suffers from
    infertility. An average of ten out of 100 women aged 20 to 44 cannot have a
    child. Infertility is turning into an epidemic whose peak we have yet to
    see,-says specialists. For women who want to escape the taboo on childlessness,
    and who do not want to adopt, the only solution is IVF or to find a surrogate
    mother who will carry their egg to maturity. For most governments, however, IVF
    and surrogacy raises serious ethical dilemmas, mainly concerning women being
    paid to carry children for someone else. Ukrainian law, by contrast, is the
    most ART friendly in Europe. Article 123.2 of Ukraine’s Family Code for example
    stipulates that women may receive financial compensation to carry someone
    else’s child, and the law places no limits on the amount that can be paid. The
    law is not the only reason why women seeking wombs to rent or IVF come to
    Ukraine. The main reason is the price. Price for the surrogacy program in Kiev
    is only about one-third of the price charged in those US states, such as
    Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia and California that permit commercial

  • Melissa

    I have found interesting news which maybe was even discussed
    on one of European society of human reproduction and embryology. “Infertility has brought down the planet as a plague.
    The only difference is that infertile people do not die and for years on end
    suffer from mental disorders caused by inability to have own child. According
    to the world statistics, 20% of the world’s population cannot get pregnant (having
    permanent sexual partner). The prevalence of primary infertility among women at
    the age of 20-35 years is of 6%. These figures are real and they have been
    increasing from year to year. Today there are solutions of male and female
    infertility problem. These are surrogacy on own or donor eggs, IVF with donor
    eggs (semen), ICSI. Using modern methods of reproductive medicine, you can
    become a parent of a child who will be genetically absolutely your own. I
    consider this fact is great. I can just only imagine what interesting and
    incredible, at the same time useful for humanity ideas and researches
    specialists from all over the world have been improving every day. And it’s so
    good that people have such opportunity to solve the childless problem. Of
    course there must be more organizations where infertile will be able to receive
    needed information, recommendations and treatment. I know such one https://www.facebook.com/Happy.Family.public.organization

  • Amelia

    I absolutely agree with this article and those ones
    who comment it. A great number of people try to have babies using IVF or
    surrogacy. And not so many countries conduct such procedures. In the modern
    world a lot of people need help of assisted methods of reproductive medicine.
    It’s a true fact! It’s a real statistics! Just imagine, every seventh couple in
    the world couldn’t have children in a natural way, they are infertile. And IVF
    can help them. Such method gives these infertile families hope for a new little
    life – baby. I suppose people must choose carefully country where to go to use
    assisted methods of reproduction. I have heard Ukraine is rather good. It’s a
    third world country nevertheless it shows great results and high success rate
    in IVF programs. There are very nice clinics in Kiev where doctors of high
    qualification are involved. I know this topic as my sister has a certain
    fertility problems. Now we try learning more information about clinics and to
    choose the best one for us. We have already studied American reproductive
    centers, but they are too expansive! Now we examine Ukraine and have already found
    rather good center. We can’t use this service at home as it’s banned by the
    law. In Ukraine for example according to the local legislation we can conduct
    any ART program and pay for it not big money.

  • BriannaJ

    Real stories by those ones who have personally went
    through the infertility and IVF are real demonstration that it is needed
    procedure and people must talk about it. One of such stories that I have found:
    “Well, my experience with biotexcom clinic was amazing! One year ago,
    approximately, I was given a diagnosis of a very serious disease, because of
    which there is no way for me to have children. The adoption process is very
    difficult in Spain, moreover if you have some problem – a serious disease. So,
    I started to look for a solution, started to think if we can start the process
    in United States, Canada, and Mexico. But the options did not seem to be
    adequate for us. Because, Mexico, it is too far and because there is no
    provision for the surrogate motherhood, or so called “womb to rent”, in the
    legislation. Because it seems that the surrogate mother cannot be remunerated,
    there is no provision in any law, and you cannot sign any contract with such
    provision. That`s why we started to consider the eastern part, Russia and
    Ukraine. And, due to economic factor, which is also so important in our time,
    and because of the crisis, we decided to trust in BioTexCom and undertook the
    adventure, and went directly to Ukraine, where we were met in a wonderful way.

  • BriannaJ

    Very important for me was the fact that I got all
    kinds of services. So that I did not have to look for something at my own
    expense, nor have to be bothered by looking for some services. BioTex gives you
    all the kind of services: food, accommodation so you don`t have to worry about
    this. The food is not the same as in Spain, but it is still fine. In our case
    we chose the unlimited attempts because it gave us guarantee which we were
    expecting. There are other clinics and other packages, which offer you attempt
    by attempt, but, you don`t really know the total sum of money which you will
    have to pay at the end. And for the middle class the most adequate option is to
    have a program with a fixed price. That`s why we decided for this program. It
    is amazing in this meaning. We were so lucky because we had gone through all
    the process approximately in 11 months. Since the moment we signed the contract
    up to the success 11 months passed. And we were so lucky to succeed from the
    first attempt. So, we cannot ask for more. We have our baby, who is healthy and
    strong, and we are happy about that.

  • BriannaJ

    Well, I have to say that the character of Ukrainian
    people in some aspects is pretty like the character of Spanish people. They
    have nothing to deal with Russians, though they have the same origin. But in
    certain characteristics they are like us. And in Ukraine I have felt myself at
    my second home. The language really is an inconvenience, of course, but this
    kind of problem can be solved. And Ukraine can offer you all kind of guarantees
    which can be offered by any European clinic or any clinic of United States.
    They do all kind of tests that are done in Spain during pregnancy, like a
    trisomy test, which is done on the 12th week of pregnancy to detect any kind of
    defects, or all the ultrasounds, which would be done in Spain. So there is
    enough guarantee. If we are talking about the war which is now, I can say,
    according to my own experience that in Kiev there is no glimmer of war or any
    hostile environment. You can come to Kiev with no worry, without any problem
    and…perfect. Well my surrogate is a person who I don`t know that deeply, cause
    we were not staying in touch during all the process, cause we were in Spain and
    she was here. But I got to know her and she is a normal person, healthy, and
    she was doing it voluntary.

  • This is an excellent article. There is so little public awareness of IVF and not enough discussion around the subject. Although I have never been through IVF, in 2014 I published my first novel, Lives in Limbo (http://www.victorialouisehill.com/Lives-in-Limbo/), which tells the journey of four families as they try and reach a decision about what to do with additional embryos created during the IVF process and then frozen for later use. When I explain this (in response to the question “What is your novel about Victoria?”, I get the same reaction every time. “Wow. I had no idea that that was even an issue with IVF.” As the author says, the only people who are informed are, in general, the people who are actually going through the process. And the internet forums on IVF are enough to make even the most seasoned forum-goer quail. When I was doing my research, I had to make a list of acronyms so I could make head or tail of what was being said, and the information I found was such a blend of quiet desperation covered by sugar-coated language that I found myself wondering how any person actually experiencing fertility problems or going through IVF could bear to stay online for more than five minutes. It’s astonishing that IVF has been around for 37 years and yet there is so much ignorance and forced secrecy. It’s time to be more open about IVF!

  • rtj1211

    Mostly it’s still taboo because vast swathes of British society are primitive, emotionally illiterate conformists who trash anyone who is different to the statistical ‘desired blueprint’.

    After all, being gay was taboo 50 years ago, as the heterosexual majority were so sexually inadequate that they considered gays to be a threat to mating straights – really!

    Women working after marriage was taboo until at least 1945. Why? Because men were too inadequate to believe that they would still be wanted by working women not dependent on their wage packet. Really!

    Child sex abuse was taboo until even more recently. Why? Because the establishment couldn’t bear the thought that the major churches, supposedly dedicated to saving our souls, were full of paedophile poofs (as they would have been called in the 1960s or 1970s). Really!

    So are you really surprised that the natural tragedy of infertility, either on the part of the woman or the man (less common but no less tragic), elicits more emotional crises for the lucky middle, incapable as they are of facing up to imperfections with courage, stoicism, compassion, empathy and support?

    • Observer1951

      Calm down, good heavens. Exclamation marks don’t make your points more relevant.

  • Emily

    A record number of British children were conceived via
    surrogacy, according to the official data. The number of children born with the
    help of surrogate mothers abroad and registered in the UK during the last six
    years increased by 265%. Surrogacy is prohibited in the UK. Advertising of
    surrogacy service and surrogate mothers’ selection are also banned in the UK.
    Only non-commercial surrogacy is permitted – surrogate mother does not receive
    money for childbearing. It’s rather difficult to find a woman who will agree to
    carry a child for the infertile couple. Living standards in the United Kingdom
    is rather high so women there are not interested at such procedures. Therefore
    infertile British families go abroad in order to use assisted methods of
    reproductive medicine. Ukrainian center for human reproduction BioTexCom is
    popular medical destination for Englishmen. Center welcomes more than 90
    couples from the United Kingdom each year. At first most Europeans are afraid
    of traveling to Ukraine – third world county, military actions in the Eastern
    Ukraine, lame-duck economy, etc. But visiting Ukraine, foreigners see just
    another picture, with own eyes – extremely beautiful state, friendly people,
    and high level of reproductive medicine.

  • Emily

    Net promoter of Ukrainian surrogacy is surrogate
    mothers. Surrogacy is allowed in Ukraine. And there are a lot of middle class
    women who agree to carry a healthy child for the infertile family from UK.
    These women are healthy, beautiful and educated. They participate in such
    medical programs due to the own needs – lack of money for close to her person’s
    treatment, own child’s education, accommodation problems, and others. In
    Ukraine, UK citizens conduct the surrogacy program absolutely legally. Now they
    can receive Emergency Travel Document (sometimes known as an emergency
    passport). This document lets British national couples leave Ukraine with a
    newborn baby conceived via surrogacy in shortest terms. Reaching home couple
    submits documents for parental order in order to become legal parents and
    receive child’s registration as a UK citizen. It must be noted that year ago it
    was much harder to receive official registration in the UK after child’s birth
    in Ukraine via surrogacy. Earlier parents should wait about six months in order
    to register their child.

  • Katie Friedman

    I got really upset me reading this. I have always asked (and will always ask) and as a friend, who managed to whiz out a couple of cracking boys at the drop of a hat it does not stop me asking just because life’s not fucking fair (welcome to life people). So I suppose what.i want to say is don’t ever stop telling me, as your friend I will never stop asking and if people have ‘friends’ who behave like this, then that is what should they should change.

  • Latimer Alder

    Happy for peeps to have IVF. But I see no reason why it’s available on the NHS

    • red2black

      Because people want it to be.

      • Latimer Alder

        Not me. Nobody’s ever asked me if I want my money spent that way.

        • red2black

          The same can be said for very many things, whether you agree with them or not. If people felt strongly enough about this particular issue, I’m sure they could organise and do something about it. A bit like the compulsory TV licence fee, but no-one can be bothered, so hey-ho.

  • Toy Pupanbai

    I can’t think why anyone would want to have children.
    Leave it to other people and just ignore their broods, occasionally give presents, as the mood takes you!

    • red2black

      To stop Muslims taking over. (tee hee)

  • EnosBurrows

    Is the problem that men don’t want to discuss having to masturbate to produce the sperm? That seems (along with discarded embryos) to be the main Catholic objection.

  • Suzy61


    What are you talking about?

    • Bo’sun Higgs

      Read the article and you might find out. Perhaps a grown-up could help you with the difficult words?

      • Suzy61

        I’ve read it thank you.

        If you are a grown up perhaps you could help me?

        Why is she describing this issue as ‘taboo’?

  • Sean L

    It’s not taboo. Otherwise this article shouldn’t be published. There has always been an element of shame associated with barrenness. Thus the term “spinster” carries a pejorative connotation. But that doesn’t qualify the condition as “taboo” – that’s a misconstrual.

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  • MathMan

    And seven in ten will be born via immigrants.

  • beelzebub

    If there was an option to gestate a child completely out of the womb, many would take it wouldn’t they?