Here is something you might not know – infertility is a disease. The World Health Organisation, so recently in the news for informing us about the dangers of processed meats, defined infertility as a disease in 2009. You might also be surprised to know that this disease affects up to one in six couples in Ireland. So, why won't the Irish government fund treatment?
Infertility has many causes, and where a cause is known, it lies with the man as much as with the woman - 40% respectively. Some causes of female infertility include irregular ovulation, blocked fallopian tubes, endometriosis, while causes of male infertility can include low sperm count, poor sperm motility, blocked sperm ducts – too many causes to list here. And in some cases, a cause is never determined.
And yet, Ireland remains steadfast in its refusal to fund treatment for this disease. As Dr Mary Wingfield, Director of the Merrion Fertility Clinic pointed out recently, only three countries in the EU do not publicly fund infertility treatments such as IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation) and IUI (Interuterine Insemination). Ireland is one.
But there is still an element of stigma attached to infertility, and few people openly discuss their fertility struggles. This can make it difficult to lobby for change, and treatment for infertility remains low on any list of government priorities – past and present.
But we should not let the silence of sufferers dictate a country’s health priorities. Infertility can impact every aspect of a person’s life - affecting self-esteem, relationships with others and themselves. In NISIG (National Infertility Support and Information Group), as we have discovered from our own personal struggles and from the many people who come to us for support, who attend our meetings and contact our helpline on a daily basis, infertility is a devastating experience that can cause enormous emotional pain for those affected.
I know from personal experience what a lonely and exhausting journey infertility is. I was diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful condition that causes bleeding outside the womb during the menstrual cycle, while I was in my 20s. When it was discovered my fallopian tubes were blocked, I underwent four hours of micro-surgery – without success. When I was told I was unlikely to conceive naturally, I was devastated. And after experiencing seven IVF cycles myself, I can emphasise with all the emotions that those who contact NISIG are going through, both the highs and the lows, the anticipation and the despondency.
But emotional trauma is not the only issue for those suffering infertility.
Infertility isn’t a choice, but treatment should be
Couples seeking fertility treatment are often left feeling isolated and facing a heavy financial burden – a treatment cycle for IVF will cost more than €4,000 for each attempt. Other couples will travel to other European countries to access treatment more cheaply than they can in Ireland. The precise number is not known, but in NISIG we are aware that many women return to Ireland carrying twins or triplets as a result of having multiple embryos transferred to their uterus. And multiple births carry a real cost to the pregnant mother and her babies, as well as the Irish health system.
People contact me for emotional support, especially following unsuccessful treatment. The heartache they experience is overwhelming. And some people are obviously devastated when they cannot afford more treatment.
As others have put it so succinctly - infertility isn’t a choice, but treatment should be.