Louise Brown, the first ever baby to be born as a result of IVF, is thirty years old today.
The BBC news coverage of her birthday celebrations highlights the fact that, although IVF was pioneered in the UK, the majority of cycles undertaken in this country are paid for privately. Professor Robert Edwards, one of the doctors responsible for developing the treatment, voiced his regret that IVF was not more widely available on the National Health Service (NHS).
In 2004, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE, the financial watchdog for the NHS) recommended that all infertile couples in which the female partner is aged between 23 and 39 should be offered three fully funded cycles of IVF.
The NHS is administered by a number of different Primary Care Trusts (PCTs), each of which is responsible for delivering health care to their local area. Each individual PCT manages its own budget and sets its own priorities. What this in effect means is that access to certain therapies - and even to certain drugs - is determined by where in the country you live (the so-called 'postcode lottery').
Figures recently released by the government have revealed that, out of a total of 151 PCTs, only nine are offering the recommended three cycles of IVF. About two-thirds of the trusts offer only one cycle. Four offer no funding for IVF whatsoever. More than half reject those who already have children, including those from previous relationships. Many impose additional social criteria: 35 trusts specify that neither partner must smoke, 30 say that patients must be in a stable relationship, and 33 impose age restrictions beyond those in the NICE guidelines.
We have been on an NHS waiting list for IVF treatment since October 2004. During that time, we foolishly decided to move house. Our new PCT was not willing to take into account the time we had already spent on the waiting list in another area, and so we went to the bottom of their list. In May 2007, we received a letter explaining that, owing to financial difficulties, the PCT had taken the decision to withdraw all funding for assisted conception treatments. That funding has yet to be reinstated.
We are fortunate that we have been able to save the money to pay for private treatment. But, to many couples, an NHS funded cycle represents their only chance for a baby. Whether or not they get that chance is determined by where in the country they live.
But, regardless of the iniquities of the postcode lottery, today I would like to propose a toast: to Louise Brown, and the 3 million other babies that have been born as a result of IVF, and to Robert Edwards and his colleague Patrick Steptoe, who together pioneered the treatment, for giving infertile couples the hope of having a child.