Too many couples receiving unnecessary IVF, study warns

Commercial pressure partly to blame for rise in fertility treatments, say researchers

In vitro fertilisation (IVF) to help couples to have children is being increasingly employed on “weak” grounds, while children born through it are at higher risk of health problems, new research warns.

The study, which was written by researchers in Britain, Australia and the Netherlands and is published by the British Medical Journal today, states the risk of extending the benefits of IVF to childless couples could be outweighing the benefits.

"IVF was developed for women with fallopian tube disorders and severe male infertility, but in recent years it has been applied to wider conditions, including unexplained infertility," according to the team, led by Dutch-based Dr Esme Kamphuis.

The first IVF birth took place in 1978, and it took until 2003 for the first million IVF babies to be born. However, a second million were born by 2005. Since then, three million more have been born.


IVF was first developed for women with fallopian tubal disease. In the 1990s, it was used to help couples in which the man has poor semen quality, which, like tubal infertility, prevents sperm reaching an egg.

Mild cases
However, it is now being used in cases of "mild male subfertility, endometriosis and unexplained sub-fertility".

In some cases, IVF is not needed, say the researchers, since couples simply need more time, as “an observational study showed that 95 per cent of 350 couples planning a first pregnancy conceive within 24 months”.

Generous public health system rules in some countries partly explain the increase.

Elsewhere, the increase is being driven by private clinics, the research argues, “where the focus on commercial returns has resulted in less academic oversight of who receives treatment and when”.

The report warns multiple pregnancies are associated with “complications such as gestational diabetes, foetal growth restriction, and pre-eclampsia, as well as premature birth”. It added: “And even singletons born through IVF have been shown to have worse outcomes than those conceived naturally.”

IVF is not available under the public system here. There are no rules governing its use by private clinics, since the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction’s 2006 report has not been acted upon.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is a Project Editor with The Irish Times.