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Sunday 1 October 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Opinion State-funded IVF is a sign we're finally moving in the right direction
Catherine Ardagh says the IVF support announced in the budget should take pressure off many hoping to conceive.

IN A LANDMARK development in healthcare for women in Ireland, Budget 2023 announced this week that IVF will finally be publicly funded by the State.

After years of being promised but not being delivered, this is finally a very welcome step in the right direction. State-funded IVF will be introduced on a phased basis due to commence in September of next year.

My hope and ambition are that we will see a fully funded IVF scheme delivered in public hospitals and as a senator in a government party, it is something I will continue to fight for.

Up until now, Ireland remained one of the only EU countries not to offer state funding for assisted reproduction even though the World Health Organization recognises infertility as a medical condition.

The data available to us indicates that one in six couples struggle with infertility, including same-sex couples. In my opinion, this figure is probably on the low side as many single women also seek IVF through donor. There is also still the stigma and isolation associated with infertility.

The budget measures this week give a clear indication of the government’s intent to build up capacity in the Assisted Human reproduction sphere and this funding together with the AHR Bill in the legislative programme shows how serious this Government are about promoting women’s health.

My own experience

On a personal level, I know how important this is to so many families and individuals all over the country. To every couple and person struggling to conceive naturally, my heart goes out to you all.

I have been that soldier, along with my husband, and I know it becomes all-consuming. It was all I thought about. I thought about it first thing in the morning and last thing at night and plenty in between. I know how painful an experience it can be to navigate.

I decided to talk abut my own IVF journey for two reasons, the first is because I want a fundamental change in how the State treats couples and people who are going through fertility challenges.

Secondly, I want to open a broader discussion around the topic and end the stigma and loneliness associated with it. I know how hard it will be for many who are reading this article who have experienced these challenges and especially for those who did not have a happy outcome. My heart genuinely goes out to every one of you.

Last year, I teamed up with my colleague Senator Fiona O’Loughlin to work on ensuring IVF funding was placed on a statutory footing and maintained into the future. The budget is an indication that the Government is listening to us, and to all the many women and men, who have advocated for this funding to be put in place for people struggling with fertility.

The costs associated with IVF are enormous and those costs should not be a barrier for people to have a shot at becoming pregnant. In a nutshell, IVF treatment should not be only accessible to those who, like my husband and I, were fortunate enough to have the resources to do it.

After trying to become pregnant for quite some time naturally, and failing, we decided to seek help from our GP. From there we were referred to the Coombe for investigations and support. I was delighted to see in the last year that a fertility hub has also been opened in the Coombe to provide couples with this early support and treatment.

There I underwent some non-invasive fertility treatment called follicle tracking combined with a drug called Clomid. I tried this five times unsuccessfully. It is a hormone-type treatment and can be tough enough on the body. On the sixth and final round, I remember waiting and wondering if it would be successful, hoping desperately that it would, but realistically knowing that having failed on five previous occasions the odds were against us.

After it failed again and having done some research, we approached our first IVF cycle at a private Dublin clinic with enormous optimism which was crushed a matter of weeks later.

It was the first of four failed treatments. I know that any person who has lived this will remember the feelings of anxiety, physical pain and pressure. On each occasion, I would get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realised it was not working.

We tried again and on the fifth attempt it worked out – we hit the jackpot. I gave birth to two baby boys on 29 December 2019 in the Coombe Hospital, where all the staff were nothing short of exceptional.

Who can we help?

But what about the couples and others out there who cannot afford one IVF cycle, let alone several? Why should they not have a chance? Everything surrounding IVF is very expensive. At the end of the process, we had spent tens of thousands of euros and the truth is if we were back at square one, we would do it all again.

I am very heartened to hear that others who are not able to pay privately for IVF will finally start to get the support from the state they need and that we will eventually see free IVF provided in our public hospitals. However, given Health Minister Stephen Donnelly yesterday acknowledged that facilitating IVF publicly will take time, it is therefore pragmatic that the government intends to fund separately through the private sector in the short-term.

It’s been a long road but step by step we’re determined to tackle issues that matter to women, including the taboos like menopause. One of the key priorities now is developing a Model of Care for Infertility. Significant work has been done in this area but the budget announcements this week are the first proper step in the right direction after years of empty promises.

In the last two years, six Regional Fertility Hubs have been established to facilitate the management of 50-70% of patients presenting with infertility issues. This is to ensure full national coverage with one hub in each of the maternity hospital networks:

• National Maternity Hospital (operational since 2021).
• Rotunda (operational since 2021).
• Coombe (operational since 2021).
• Cork University Maternity Hospital (operational since 2021)
• Galway (opened April 2022).
• Nenagh Women’s Health Hub (due to open Q4 2022)

Phase Two of the roll-out of the model of care will now see the introduction of tertiary infertility including IVF, in the public health system. An important step in this rollout requires the finalisation and enactment of the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill 2022, which is presently at the Committee Stage in the Dáil, and the establishment of the proposed new Assisted Human Reproduction Regulatory Authority.

To all those who are going through IVF, I hope and pray that you succeed and if you do not that you come to peace with your struggle. It is a real struggle, but you are not alone.

Catherine Ardagh is a Seanad spokesperson on Social Protection and Fianna Fáíl Senator.


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