Trip of a lifetime


27 March 2011
The Sunday Times

Like many couples in the Czech city of Brno on a long weekend, Tanya and her husband, Simon, wandered around the old town hall, admired Spilberk castle and drank lemonade in the square. They then headed to the Reprofit clinic, where Simon had left a semen sample a few days earlier, so Tanya could undergo an embryo transfer. Not quite your stereotypical minibreak then. But anyone looking at IVF message boards over the past five years will have noticed that Tanya and Simon are one of a growing number of Irish couples travelling to Brno and other European cities for fertility treatment.

Tanya and her husband were both 36 when they opted to go to the Czech Republic, but their story starts 12 years earlier. When they married at 24, Tanya couldn’t wait to start a family — little did she know that they would still be trying a decade later. Over time, the desire to have a child took over her life, and with it came a growing sense of isolation. “Family life is so important in Ireland,” she says. “As time went on, people stopped inviting us to family gatherings and children’s birthday parties, and friends stopped involving us in holiday plans. We didn’t have children of our own, so people assumed we wouldn’t enjoy being around their kids.”

One in six Irish couples has problems conceiving, but Ireland, among only three EU countries (with Poland and Romania), has no legal framework regulating IVF. The Roman Catholic church’s anti-IVF stance — which it deems “morally unacceptable” — and the previous government’s approach to what is a political hot potato are seen as the two main reasons. Given the lack of regulation, few people choose to donate eggs or sperm, and that can mean long waiting lists. The second hurdle Irish couples face is the cost of treatment. Most European countries offer state funding for IVF — in Denmark, for example, the state pays for three attempts. In Ireland, however, there is no funding at all. No wonder IVF tourism is booming.

The couple had a number of reasons for choosing Reprofit. “We were happy with their success rate, and the price,” she says. “One round of IVF with egg donation at home cost three times more.” Today, the cost in the Czech Republic of one round of IVF (with egg donation) is €4,500, compared to about €12,000 in Ireland. The couple filled in the forms and sent photos and details of their physical characteristics so the clinic could find a donor to match. “We specified they should be tall, because we are both over 6ft.” The nine-month waiting list gave them time to raise the funds.

Tanya didn’t tell family or friends about her decision, relying instead on internet forums for support. “I know it’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” she says, “but I don’t feel comfortable talking about infertility. It’s not spoken about in Ireland.” This attitude was also evident in the treatment she received at home. “In Ireland, we were just a number. Things weren’t explained to us properly, we were afraid to ask questions and we hadn’t a clue what was going on. It was very traumatic. In the Czech Republic we were given so much time. They told us if we weren’t sure of something we were welcome to ask again.”

Tanya spent three nights in Brno. After the egg transfer, she found herself pregnant for the first time in 12 years. Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage, but, undeterred, she went back to Brno to have a second embyro, which had been frozen, transferred. It was a case of second time lucky. “Our twins, James and Michael, now 2, are the result,” she beams.

For couples seeking IVF at home, it’s not all doom and gloom. Fiona McPhillips and Joanna Donnelly set up the Pomegranate charity last September, to raise money to provide a cycle of treatment for one couple per year in Ireland. Both had been through IVF and the elation of a subsequent birth. “We felt that we had been so lucky and wanted to help other people.”

The charity linked up with the Sims IVF Clinic in Dublin and for every IVF cycle the charity funds, the clinic will provide other services, such as consultations, blood tests and scans, for free. Gynaecologists put forward couples they think are suitable. “At no point do they know they are being considered for funding,” says McPhillips. “We didn’t want people feeling there was yet another thing to fail at.” So far, the charity has received a phenomenal response in terms of fundraising. “We’ve had hundreds of people looking to donate either money or time and we’re almost ready to fund a second couple.”

So what does the future hold for couples seeking IVF? McPhillips isn’t hopeful the new government will draw up the necessary legislation. “Enda Kenny has already said there won’t be any changes to the abortion legislation, so I can’t see him tackling IVF.”

McPhillips feels the role of the church will also continue to hamper progress. “Some of the clinics are tied to the Catholic maternity hospitals. The church has a huge voice in this debate. Every time I’m asked to talk on TV or radio on the subject there is always someone there representing the Catholic side. I don’t see why they should have any say in what is essentially a medical issue.”

Despite this lack of progress, Pomegranate has had an auspicious start. In January, McPhillips heard that the first couple it funded is expecting a child. Tanya knows all too well the excitement they must be feeling. “We still can’t believe we have our boys. We sit and watch them endlessly, we’re so content.” A trip of a lifetime, indeed.