Injecting yourself with fertility drugs as part of the egg freezing process is, 38-year-old Clare* explains, a 'fiddly process' - and a slip-up can be expensive: 'I was painfully aware that whenever I fumbled with the syringe and spilled its contents it would cost me hundreds of pounds to buy more.'
Clare, who says she decided on fertility treatment after feeling as if her life had been 'put on pause', is one of thousands of women who paid for egg freezing over past year, with fertility clinics reporting a three-fold increase in demand.
As well as an increase in single women like Clare opting for egg freezing – all of whom are ineligible for NHS fertility treatment, due to their relationship status – many women and couples have been forced to access private fertility treatment, after the NHS halted their fertility services in the first lockdown. This surge in people accessing private treatment comes at a time when, due to the impact of Covid, many individuals’ finances are in disarray.
'I was painfully aware that whenever I fumbled with the syringe and spilled its contents it would cost me hundreds of pounds to buy more'
That's why there has perhaps never been a more crucial time to talk about the cost of fertility treatment in the UK. Currently, women have a chance to let the Department of Health know what they think about the provision of fertility treatment within England, as the Government has launched a call for evidence - closing later this month - to better understand their experiences of the health system, including fertility treatment and its costs.
Even before the pandemic, the NHS provision of IVF was patchy, particularly in England, where there is a so-called postcode lottery: whether you are able to access NHS fertility treatment depends on the clinical commissioning group (CCG) overseeing your area, with different regions offering different levels of access to NHS IVF and some offering none at all.
Yet costs within the private sector vary wildly – and are often not clear at the outset: an egg-freezing or IVF cycle could cost anything between £2,500 and £20,000, depending on the clinic and the treatments offered there. Clare thinks freezing her eggs cost her around £8,000 – but says 'I pretty much stopped keeping track, deliberately.'
Holly*, 38, who has spent almost £16,000 on three unsuccessful rounds of IVF with her partner, explains that they opted for private fertility treatment after their GP bungled their referral for NHS-funded IVF. 'Going private was a way to manage some of the huge anxieties caused by delay within the NHS,' she says, 'but it has brought its own stress.
'IVF makes us constantly second-guess our decisions and I feel trapped by financial circumstances'
'IVF makes us constantly second-guess our decisions and I feel trapped by financial circumstances. I was recently encouraged to go for a promotion - I was just about to start another round of IVF and decided not to risk the extra stress. Now, since that round didn’t work, I can’t help stress about how that extra money could have paid for another cycle.'
Campaigners are working for change: the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which has long been critical of what it calls the 'devastating gaps' in NHS-funded IVF care, will this autumn launch its own not-for-profit fertility service.
Meanwhile, Dr Geeta Nargund, a senior NHS consultant and a pioneer of affordable fertility treatment in the private sector with her company abc ivf, is calling for the creation of a centralised system that ensures women have equal opportunity to access NHS-funded IVF treatment no matter where they live. This could be achieved, she says by the establishment of a national tariff (set prices and rules) for IVF in the NHS: 'Then we could end the postcode lottery for IVF.' In the private sector, she wants tighter regulating of 'add-ons' (the extra treatments offered at some clinics).
'Fertility treatment is never going to be easy,' reflects Clare, 'but worries about the cost don't need to make it worse for women like me.'
If you want to have your say, the Department of Health is seeking views from women 16 and over, living in England, to help inform the development of its first Women’s Health Strategy. Find out more here****.
*Names have been changed.