A leading IVF expert today calls on the NHS to provide free egg freezing for childless women in a ‘revolutionary’ plan to avert Britain’s looming fertility crisis.
Consultant gynaecologist Professor Geeta Nargund argues that her ‘radical action’ – which would cost the Health Service hundreds of millions of pounds – is the only way to protect women’s fertility as increasing numbers delay motherhood for economic or social reasons.
Prof Nargund, in an impassioned plea to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, argues that her plan for the taxpayer to fund women aged from 30 to 35 to ‘bank’ their eggs would allow thousands to take advantage of a private procedure that costs between £3,000 and £5,000 a time and up to £400 a year to store them.
Consultant gynaecologist Professor Geeta Nargund argues that allowing women to solve their eggs for free on the NHS will solve an impending ‘fertility crisis’
At present, most women who freeze their eggs do so when they are older than 35, which means the quality is poorer, with a lower chance of fertilisation.
While Prof Nargund admits her plan may seem ‘an expensive luxury’, she claims it could save the NHS money in the long run by improving success rates when the same women later opt for publicly funded IVF treatments, reducing the number of expensive and emotionally draining repeat attempts.
Using better quality eggs would also lead to a lower risk of miscarriage and chromosome abnormalities, while reducing the need for egg donors, she argues.
Prof Nargund told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We don’t want to deny a whole generation of women from freezing because it’s too expensive. These women are paying into our economy through their National Insurance contributions.
‘How is it fair that they completely shoulder all the costs themselves to the benefit of our society and the economy?
‘The state must take responsibility. Having children is not just for yourself. It is directly benefiting society in its prosperity because without children who is going to pay for pensions?’
Calculating the cost of what Prof Nargund calls a ‘revolutionary step forward in empowering women’ would depend on the take-up rate. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, an estimated 642,000 women in England and Wales aged between 30 and 35 were childless in 2016.
If all of them opted to have their eggs frozen at a cost of £4,000 each, it would total £2.57 billion, equating to an annual cost of £428 million.
The annual cost of IVF treatment to the NHS is about £140 million, but the number of Clinical Commissioning Groups prepared to fund it is decreasing rapidly. CCGs are the bodies responsible for the planning and commissioning of health care services for their local area.
The number of CCGs in England offering three cycles of IVF – recommended by The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – to eligible women under 40 has halved in the past five years.
According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, 1,272 women in the UK registered to have IVF treatment without a partner in 2016 – compared with 942 in 2014. In 2016, IVF clinics carried out 1,173 cycles of egg freezing, up ten per cent from the previous year.
Prof Nargund, who works at St George’s Hospital in London, has long argued for fertility lessons to be included in the National Curriculum so that teenagers learn about the dangers of delaying parenthood. Reaction to her call was mixed. Aileen Feeney, chief executive of charity Fertility Network UK, said: ‘Anything that gives women the opportunity to preserve their fertility is a good thing and we would absolutely support this.’
Anything that gives women the opportunity to preserve their fertility is a good thing
Consultant gynaecologist Stuart Campbell, a former professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at St George’s, said: ‘In a way, egg freezing is the last great freedom for women, so economically if it’s important for the country to have a young population then it is worth funding egg freezing on the NHS.
‘The Government should consider making it a policy to help women have babies as young as possible.’
But Adam Balen, professor of reproductive medicine at Leeds NHS Trust and chairman of the Fertility Education Initiative, said: ‘Having children is an economic benefit to society, and even treatment such as IVF is cost-effective. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet to call on the Government to fund social egg freezing.
‘If the NHS were to fund the recommended amount of IVF for everyone, rather than funding one or no cycles, they would have a decent chance of having a baby. But the law at the moment only allows freezing for ten years, so there is a danger if you freeze too young you may not actually be able to use your eggs when you want to.’
Mail on Sunday columnist Dr Ellie Cannon said: ‘I don’t think NHS stakeholders would be keen to be funding egg freezing at the moment. I appreciate this may seem cruel to many women, but I suppose you have to weigh up these things against demands we face every day in the NHS, such as prescribing expensive cancer drugs or carrying out costly operations for children with cerebral palsy.
‘In that sort of environment, I am not sure egg freezing can be justified.’