We invite you to a free online event organised in collaboration with the Progress Educational Trust. Some of our findings from the Remaking the Human Body project will be presented at this event.
Title: Adding up what we know: A global perspective on fertility treatment add-ons
Date: 26 January 2022, 5.30pm – 7.30pm.
Further details and registration can be found here.
During this event, a panel of speakers will present a global perspective on fertility treatment ‘add-ons‘ – optional treatments or procedures offered alongside IVF, often at considerable expense to the patient, which may not be supported by reliable evidence. The event is open to all; fertility professionals, fertility patients and anyone else who might be interested.
Please join us!
This event marks the end of our public engagement event series. A list of our previous events can be found on our Events page.
In June 2021 Manuela Perrotta and I responded to the government’s call for evidence to inform their forthcoming Women’s Health Strategy for England. The government consultation received over 110,000 public survey responses and over 400 written responses. Just before the December holidays, the Department of Health & Social Care published their vision for the Strategy based on the responses received. Reflecting the sentiments shared in the public survey, the department’s vision highlights fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and postnatal support as particular areas of concern. This grouping of priority areas was the second most selected option across all survey participants (after menstrual health and gynaecological conditions), and the most selected priority area for those aged 30 to 39. Infertility and fertility treatment are integral parts of this broader concern with reproductive and maternal health.
The vision document highlights the need for ‘more trusted and easier to understand information’ about women’s health issues, including reproductive health, which is a key point that we address in our written evidence. In our submission we emphasised that there is an abundance of information about infertility and fertility treatments, especially online. But prospective and current fertility patients often find the information difficult to navigate and identifying good quality information can be challenging. We found that our study participants generally felt that NHS websites offered good sources of reliable information. In our written evidence, we suggest ways for NHS websites to expand their remit to cater for fertility patients’ needs. We were excited therefore, to learn that one of the next steps for the Strategy will be to progress the quality of online information in collaboration with NHS Digital. We hope that the needs of fertility patients will be addressed in this continued work. We also look forward to following further developments as well as the government’s dedicated Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy, which is expected later this year.
At the beginning of December, we kept up our tradition of attending the Progress Educational Trust’s (PET) annual conference. The title and topic of this year’s online event was ‘Reproducing Regulation: Who Regulates Fertility and How?’ With 16 talks across the full day, I have chosen just a handful here that I thought were particularly pertinent to the issues that we consider in our research.
The first speaker of the day was Julia Chain, chair of the Human and Embryology Authority, who had made headlines in the run-up to the conference with her call for changes to the 1990 Human Fertility and Embryology Act. Her proposed changes would enable the HFEA to impose economic sanctions on fertility clinics that mis-sell unproven treatment add-ons. While she emphasised that her call was not a complete rejection of the current regulatory framework, she highlighted the need to update certain areas of the act to reflect the current state of society and the fertility sector. Currently, she noted, the HFEA has no powers to regulate the increasingly commercialised provision of services. Private fertility treatment is increasingly the norm in the UK, with 65% of IVF treatment being self-funded by patients themselves.
Reflecting on the commercialised fertility sector, Raj Mathur from the British Fertility Society brought attention to questions of fairness and equity and the lack of NHS funding for fertility treatment. Many prospective patients, he reminded us, do not have any access to IVF and when they do, affordability is a huge cause of concern. Mathur spoke about the challenges for patients who have to navigate very complex regulations around the provision of funding, before they even reach the point of having to choose between different treatment offerings.
A significant challenge to regulating the fertility sector is the fast pace of innovation. In her talk entitled ‘What is an add-on, and who gets to decide?’ Anja Bisgaard Pinborg, a specialist in reproductive medicine at Copenhagen University, detailed the difficulties of regulating add-ons safely without stifling the progress of medical research. She explained how the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) is working on a new guideline for regulating add-ons. This guideline includes a very extensive range of tests, treatments and techniques, which reflects the vast and complex offerings of the fertility sector. While Bisgaard Pinborg recognised the obligation of clinics to offer the best treatment to their patients and the strong desires that patients may have to try certain (perhaps more experimental) treatments, she also highlighted that patients should never bear the cost of innovation. Patients, she argued, should not pay for add-ons that are still under development. How fertility patients and professionals navigate the complex world of IVF add-ons is something we have covered extensively in our research publications, workshops and in this blog post on how to best support patients’ informed decisions.
Further examples of how the law and regulation lag behind change were raised by Emily Jackson later in the day. Jackson set out how definitions of ‘mother’ in UK fertility law do not easily apply to the new social and family formations that are enabled though reproductive technologies. Currently, the legal definition of mother is defined in terms of who physically gives birth to a child. One of the examples presented by Jackson involved the case of a child that has two female parents at birth. In this case, the person who gives birth is the mother and the partner is the second legal parent. This is also the case when the partner’s egg was used in the IVF treatment. Interestingly in this case, as Jackson pointed out, the second parent is actually the child’s closer genetic relation. Fatherhood on the other hand, is expressed in both genetic and social terms, which allows for greater flexibility and choice in how fatherhood is defined.
Again, this year’s PET conference succeeded in traversing a wide range of perspectives on the most pressing issues confronting the fertility sector right now.
The project team were present at this year’s Modern Family Show and the Fertility Show Online Summit. The timing of these shows presented a perfect opportunity for us to share our new animations, which you can watch on our website here.
Our booth at the Fertility Show Online Summit contained lots of details about the research project, our publications and, of course, our videos. The research team enjoyed visiting other booths as well as the many excellent seminars that were on offer across the four days. It was great to virtually ‘meet’ other show participants in the summit’s online chat.
Later in September, Manuela and I were interviewed by BBC reporter Sophie Sulehria as part of the Fertility Show’s live seminar series, which extended into the weeks following the online summit. We thoroughly enjoyed speaking to Sophie and having a conversation about fertility patients’ and professionals’ perspectives on IVF treatment add-ons.
We also screened our videos at the Modern Family Show, which took place in central London on 18 September. Unfortunately, the research team was unable to attend the show in-person, but the videos were screened on the main stage during the event for all attendees to watch.
We were thrilled to launch our online event series ‘The IVF Experience’ this week. Our first workshop coincided with Fertility Network UK’s National Fertility Awareness Week, which is an whole week dedicated to having conversations about infertility and the realities of fertility treatment.
Our first workshop was hosted by Sarah Norcross from the The Progress Educational Trust. Workshop participants had wide-ranging experiences of and relationships to IVF, which fostered really important conversations about the complexities of treatment decision-making for patients, feelings of control and lack of control, and the role of embryo images.
We are excited to have more conversations with others at our next workshops! See our Events page for information about how to sign up.
In June 2021, Manuela Perrotta and I submitted written evidence to the UK government’s Women’s Health Strategy for England. We believe the consultation presents a key opportunity to improve the treatment experiences of IVF patients.
In our response, which you can find in full on our Publications page, we make five policy recommendations:
Women need a more coordinated provision of up-to-date information about IVF, especially information about novel IVF treatment add-ons
Improving the clarity, visibility and accessibility of already available information is a relatively low-cost measure that will bring timely positive change for IVF patients
There is an opportunity for the NHS A-Z website to direct IVF patients to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s website for information specifically about new IVF treatment add-ons
Different understandings of evidence should be considered to improve the quality of information on new treatment add-ons
Accurate information about the nature of available evidence should be provided when treatment add-ons are experimental
We are very grateful to Inflect Partners for their advice in preparing our submission for this call.
At the beginning of May we were delighted to spend an afternoon on Zoom with visual artist Sally Butcher, who is currently working on her Arts Council England funded project re.conceive. Sally approached us a while back to explore some of the synergies between our projects, which in different ways explore how reproduction, fertility and (non-)reproductive bodies are visualised or, sometimes, become invisible. Sally very generously shared some of her work-in-progress with us and we shared details about our research process and findings.
Each member of the research team was able to spend some time with Sally individually, and I include our reflections in our own words below.
Giulia: Sally’s work has inspired our conversation around reproduction in its different forms. We have especially discussed the relationship between medical knowledge, technologies and tools to visualise reproductive body parts or phenomena, and embodied experiences of them. We talked about the role of visual experiences in the construction of dominant narratives of gendered reproductive lives, and about the visibility and invisibility of specific reproductive experiences (for example infertility, miscarriages, abortion). We explored the notions of common and uncommon, known and unknown, expected and unexpected, we discussed how individual experiences relate to standardised measures and protocols and how people adjust and react to these, especially when these intersect with other medical, legal and geographical infrastructures (for example in the context of transnational reproductive travels).
Manuela: Among the many things we talked about, Sally and I had an interesting conversation regarding some of her work-in-progress – in my interpretation, an inspiring visualisation of the current developments in the field of embryology. Sally’s representation of sets of data embedded within an image of an embryo captured the current turn in embryology, by highlighting visually the novel and increasing use of data-driven algorithms in this field. In our research, analysing the case of Time-lapse incubators and their incorporated algorithms, we have investigated how new knowledge about embryos is generated in the complex interactions between professionals and machines. Although the use of algorithms has the potential to release unknown biological information on embryos (and therefore reveal their hidden secrets), algorithms do not simply add medical and reproductive knowledge as they require human input and therefore still rely on professional expertise.
Josie: During our conversation, Sally and I found many shared interests: for instance in how themes of absence and presence, and proximity and distance, shape ideas about reproduction as well as experiences of infertility. Being a geographer (academically and at heart!), I was drawn to how the body exterior and interior are ‘mapped’ in some of Sally’s work. We talked about the role of measurements, ordering, boundaries and boundary-making in relation to how reproductive processes are visualised and described. We also talked about the intrigue and mystery of magnifying or looking inside things.
Sally’s work also drew my attention to all the other kinds of imagery that fertility patients encounter before or during their IVF treatment. The focus of our research is on images and videos of embryos, which are exterior to the body or in vitro. But fertility patients often encounter a whole range of other visualising techniques that allow them to see inside their bodies. Ultrasound scans and dye tests, for instance, are routinely used to medically investigate female reproductive organs and check that these appear to be functioning ‘normally’. Ways of visualising bodies and embryos have (personal and political) implications for how infertility is seen and known, and therefore very real consequences for patients’ treatment experiences and trajectories.
Sally: My conversations with the Remaking the Human Body team have been invaluable in my research project. As a visual artist, Re.conceive was driven by the invisibility of Infertility within the new wave of maternal visual arts, where, as in society at large, infertility still remains mostly hidden and shrouded in silence. My project aims to explore and visually theorise the transformational process of ‘becoming’ a (M)Other, challenging traditional reproduction to reconceive a form of sub-maternal.
My meetings with Giulia, Josie and Manuela helped thoroughly contextualise my thinking, aiding my understanding of how infertility connects with the broader narrative of reproduction, as well as giving me greater insight into the scientific procedures within embryology and new practices with AI, and drew my focus onto patient interpretation of these new technologies. It especially moved my thinking toward the visual and verbal languages used within infertility. As a cultural researcher, I am drawn to the rhetoric of medical terminology, weighted in ‘success’ and ‘failure’, aimed at potential ‘geriatric mothers’ with ‘inhospitable uteruses’, and how this may sit alongside hidden personal testimonies, confessional spaces of the coded #TTC online community, or conversations with family and friends where it so often generates a real sense of unease. As an artist, I try to use a feminist gaze to challenge institutionalised power within visual tropes of medical and commercial imagery of infertility. These meetings enlightened me as to how much power we place in these visuals and how these become naturalised into our knowledges of reproduction, with narratives of the embryo constructed from the encounters we have with these visuals. The immediate resonances I felt between my own practice and the fantastic work being done by this team, has encouraged me to continue using this imagery, exploring its symbolism alongside the power of the maternal imagination.
In the evening of 9 June our event ‘The IVF Experience and Positive Outcomes: A Social Science Perspective’ took place online in collaboration with the Royal College of Nursing Library & Archives. We were excited that so many people were able to attend from all over the UK (one of the definite benefits of online events). Our audience consisted of Royal College of Nursing members as well as many others who had experience of IVF or were simply interested to learn more about our research.
Sarah Norcross from the Progress Educational Trust opened the event as our host. Project lead, Manuela, introduced the Remaking the Human Body project as a whole, which has involved research with a wide range of fertility professionals as well as IVF patients and their partners. She then introduced the focus of the evening on the experiences of patients and partners going through IVF and what these tell us about the significance of care at different points in treatment.
In preparation for the workshop, Giulia, who manages our public engagement programme, had designed a series of live questions or small tasks that popped up for the audience at certain points during the evening. These questions offered a way for us to get a sense of the audience’s thoughts on the topics presented. It was exciting for us to see how people engaged with the research material and to see their reflections represented visually on-screen, for instance through word clouds like the one below.
In the second part of the workshop, I (a researcher on the project) presented an image of the ‘typical’ IVF treatment timeline that patients often see at the start of their treatment. These timelines, which are often found on fertility clinic websites or in their information booklets, usually emphasise the key moments in treatment such as hormone stimulation, egg and sperm collection, embryo transfer and pregnancy testing. They sometimes also provide some indication of a potential pregnancy and baby as the end point of treatment. Of course, these timelines have a very particular purpose, which is to provide a simple overview of what to expect during the treatment process and instil a sense of confidence in the procedure. But interviews with IVF patients and partners start to reveal all the other things that happen before, alongside, around and on top of these key milestones.
Our research explores peoples’ actual experiences of the IVF treatment process and how this impacts the decisions that they make and the kind of care that they need at different stages. Rather than present a neatly defined set of findings, the rest of the workshop involved a series of real quotes from interviews with patients and partners, which gave an insight into the diverse and complex lived experiences of IVF.
I will end this post with an example of an interview quote from our research with IVF patients, alongside the audience’s reflections on this quote in the form of a word cloud.
The research participant in the following quote explained how they went to a clinic consultation wanting to transfer two embryos in the same transfer procedure. They described having a conversation with their fertility consultant about this decision:
‘[The selection of embryos to transfer] was explained but kind of quite happily like “this is what we need to do and so this is what we recommend.” And the discussion around having two [embryos] put back in with the consultant here, they advised us to think about maybe only having one put back in but then talked to us about the reasons for that and the potential negatives of having two put back. And that was, felt like a really kind of good balanced discussion around what we wanted and what they would suggest.’
Then we asked the audience to think of words or tags that capture what is being said in the quote. This is what they suggested:
The audience’s interpretations of quotes offered the stimulus for a really thought-provoking discussion at the end of the workshop about care and what good quality care means in the context of IVF. The feedback from the event also suggested that people enjoyed the opportunity to get involved and share their own interpretations of the research material. We are excited to explore more innovative ways of using online events in the coming final stages of our project.
We were very pleased that two papers from the project were presented at the Nordic Science and Technology Studies conference on 20-21 May, which was hosted (online) by Copenhagen Business School. I presented a paper on IVF treatment ‘add-ons’ from the perspectives of IVF patients and partners, fertility professionals, and the UK regulator. This paper explored the category of add-ons as something that exists ‘outside’ or on the boundary of what is considered ‘routine’ IVF. It considered how such a category works differently across national regulation, professional practice and patient experiences of treatment. Manuela presented a paper on ‘the travel of reproductive imaging from the lab to the social world’, drawing on material from patient interviews to explore what happens when images of embryos are encountered outside of the lab or clinic setting.
Now that all of our fieldwork is completed, we are excited to be able to start thinking across all the elements of our research. We will be sharing more of these findings over the course of the next months.
I had the pleasure of attending this year’s online Progress Educational Trust (PET) annual conference where the topics for consideration were fertility, genomics and COVID-19.
Consultant Jane Stewart opened the first session by speaking about the experiences of fertility clinics and she used the surfing analogy of ‘riding the wave’ through what was, and still is in many respects, a great unknown. One of the difficult issues for clinics throughout has been how to organise their reopening and patients’ return to treatment, where a more restricted allocation of resources can necessitate the prioritisation of some patients over others. This issue was taken up by philosopher and bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who described IVF as a ‘playground of ethical issues’. For instance, considerations about what constitutes elective treatment, non-urgent treatment, futile treatment, risk and safety involve a series of value judgements that are contestable. The ways in which fertility clinics approach the pandemic and its aftermath will likely involve judgements about how to prioritise the return of fertility patients, and Julian set out various ways to go about this process of prioritisation:
Should fertility treatment be offered on a first-come first-served basis? Should older patients receive treatment first given that they might be under greatest time pressure? Or should patients who have highest chance of success be given first access?
There are no clear or straightforward answers to which of these options is right or fair, but it is clear that decisions made at the clinic level will have a deep impact on patients’ lives. The uncertainties involved for patients about their treatment progression during the pandemic was taken up again in Session Four by chair Anna Veiga, who noted that there has been an increase in people seeking elective egg-freezing services during the pandemic as they anticipate a treatment delay of an unknown length of time.
Sessions Two and Three emphasised the wide range of unknowns about how COVID-19 – or more specifically the virus SARS-Cov-2 – affects reproductive function, semen, oocytes and foetuses. Allan Pacey, professor of andrology, noted the vast amount of research that has been done on this topic but he also emphasised the importance of maintaining quality assurance in all research. Session chair Fiona Fox reiterated the need to be cognisant and critical of a current infodemic, where poor research is given a platform and circulated in rapid media reporting. While the findings from studies on reproduction and SARS-Cov-2 so far are often inconclusive or difficult to extrapolate to the population level, the panels were largely positive about the low risks of the virus during fertility treatment and pregnancy, as well as for longer term fertility, yet they also insisted that this does not take away the fact that for some individuals COVID-19 can have devastating effects. Geneticist Sharon Moalem offered some fascinating insights into why men seem to be more susceptible to COVID-19 than women. Reflecting differential responses to many other viruses, female immune systems show a greater antibody response to infection, which impacts on the body’s resilience to severe illness as well as its response to vaccination.
The fourth session focused on the guidelines for fertility clinic reopening that have been developed by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. In practice, experiences from clinics have involved putting into place new staff and patient testing procedures, as well as sanitisation measures and the offering of telemedicine. While there was a sense that clinics have been able to respond to the new requirements effectively, concerns were expressed throughout the conference about limitations in other essential medical and health services. Specialist in reproductive medicine Luca Gianaroli noted that stillbirth rates have increased in many European countries, including the UK, during the pandemic. This, he said, is not due to the virus itself but rather the reduced access to antenatal and emergency care services. The impacts of reduced healthcare access was echoed by Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) chair Sally Cheshire earlier in the day, who described how patients at the early stages of seeking diagnostic examinations via their general practice or routine gynaecological surgery are at a disadvantage in their potential fertility treatment progression. While there was a sense that fertility clinics have been able to respond relatively well to a new way of working, many other areas of the health services in the UK are experiencing backlogs and increased waiting times. These cases emphasised how fertility treatment is not an isolated ‘moment’ or procedure, but that it is closely tied to reproductive health more broadly as well as antenatal health and care. Attending to fertility patients’ broader trajectories of treatment is central to gaining a fuller understanding of the impact of the pandemic in this area.