Baby on board: Irish 'fertility tourists' look for help abroad
Hundreds of Irish couples who desperately want to start a family are going to Spain, Denmark and the Czech Republic in a new wave of fertility tourism.
They are shunning Irish clinics in favour of seeking fertility treatments abroad to start a family. And they have been joined by same-sex couples as well as single women who want to conceive before it is too late.
Enquiries for overseas fertility treatments have increased by 59pc in the past six months alone, according to new research by the private healthcare search engine, WhatClinic.com.
The numbers of Irish people enquiring about IVF procedures in the Czech Republic has increased by a whopping 465pc in the last 12 months, with requests for information about the same treatment in Spain more than doubling during this period.
Denmark and the Czech Republic are popular not just in terms of advanced treatments but also because donors are likely to be close enough to our Celtic colouring, which is considered important in areas such as egg and sperm donation.
Meanwhile in Ireland, IVF enquires have dropped by more than a fifth this year. As well as Denmark, Spain, and the Czech Republic, the United States is also a destination of choice.
Fertility treatments such as IVF have become increasingly popular in recent years, with a number of well-known mums like Brooke Shields, Christie Brinkley and Nicole Kidman all speaking openly about how it helped them to conceive.
One round of IVF in Ireland costs on average €4,662. However, in the Czech Republic, patients are paying €2,651. And with many couples needing several attempts at IVF before it is successful, the cost of the treatment can become a major factor.
While the average cost of IVF in Spain is higher than in Ireland, at an average of €4,800, it is believed that Spain's reputation as a leader in this highly specialised medical area has made it an attractive destination for Irish fertility patients.
However, Dr John Waterstone, Medical Director of the Cork Fertility Clinic, believes that while a small number of Irish people may be travelling for IVF, the biggest draw are overseas egg banks, which are not available here.
"There are a smaller number travelling for IVF treatment because there is the perception that it is cheaper abroad," he explained.
"The Czech Republic is a big destination for that, but by the time you factor in travelling and staying somewhere, then it may be that it's not actually that much cheaper at all. The big reason why women from Ireland are going abroad for fertility treatment is for egg donation, where their eggs are not of a good enough quality to conceive.
"Egg donation is one thing that we can't do adequately in Ireland at the moment because we don't have a supply of anonymous egg donors," Dr Waterstone added.
"So we have a link with a clinic in Spain, where our patients go. Some of our patients will also go to the United States because the success rate is extremely high for egg donation there. We are linked with a clinic in the States where they will actually guarantee you a baby or your money back."
WhatClinic.com says Irish enquiries for egg donation in the Czech Republic have tripled in the last year, with enquiries for the same services in Spain rising by a third.
"The internet has made IVF treatment abroad more accessible and more appealing," said Declan Keane, Director, Senior Clinical Embryologist with ReproMed Ireland.
"What's making them go abroad mainly is to access services, which they could not avail of in Ireland up to quite recently, such as donor sperm. So they were travelling abroad to access the sperm banks, but that is all accessible in Ireland now through ReproMed and clinics like us," Mr Keane said.
"There are no egg banks in Ireland, but certainly we can assist those services through Spain," Mr Keane added.
"I feel that you are better off staying in Ireland for IVF services and then for donor eggs, we can now freeze the man's sperm, fly it out, create the embryos and you can even have your embryos brought back into Ireland."
Mr Keane disagrees with a perception that Irish people are travelling overseas because they feel these clinics have more experience and expertise than fertility clinics in Ireland.
"It's not that they see the services as being better outside, I think people see it as being cheaper or they are accessing a service they cannot get here," he explained.
"I think the services in Ireland are excellent."
However, Mr Keane did concede that there are treatments available elsewhere, including IVF-related procedures, which have not yet been introduced in Ireland.
"People will go across the borders to access IVF treatment, where some of the newer techniques haven't yet hit Ireland," he said.
"In Ireland we kind of watch what happens; are they successful? Are they viable? Is there any increased risk of abnormalities in the babies? Then we'll take on those research services. And some people will say 'look, I just need to access those now, so I'm going.'"
According to one 33-year-old woman, who had two failed IVF procedures in Ireland before going to Spain, where the procedure was finally a success, Irish people are travelling for more than financial reasons and egg donation.
"The main reason for going abroad was to avail of the expertise that clinics with higher patient turnovers have to offer," she explained.
"Because there are lower numbers doing IVF here, you get the sense that the expertise and the most up-to-date treatment options might not be available.
"I know a few girls my age, who like me, went abroad after two failed cycles. All of us conceived abroad using our own eggs."
Another woman (37), who is 20 weeks pregnant after travelling to Prague for her third IVF treatment, is more critical of Ireland's fertility sector.
"It was for male fertility that we went. I always felt that my husband needed a procedure done and they wouldn't listen to me here, so I asked them in Prague to do it. That operation is the only reason I'm pregnant," she said.