The F Word

ivfIt’s National Fertility Awareness Week. When you want a baby and can’t have one, it’s like a a hole that threatens to suck you and your partner and the whole world dry. It starts as a tiny tear: you’ve been trying for a while and nothing’s happened. You’re waiting to meet the right person. You’ve met The One, but they want something different. But there’s time.  So you keep praying and put it to the back of your mind.

Time passes.  A few years maybe. Nothing has changed.  But you’re aware you’re getting older.  And that tiny tear is beginning to rip across the fabric of your relationships.  Friends with families.  Your marriage.  Your experience of church. Your sense of self. So, when the Hole becomes bigger than the Fear of What If, you make an appointment with your GP.   You lay your heart and your hopes on the consultant’s desk. You tell a stranger about your sex life. They do tests. You wait. Hopefully it’s something simple you can change.  A new tablet.  A lifestyle adjustment. But if it’s not, they’ll refer you.  And that’s when you might start thinking about other options.  Like IVF.

In fact, even without thinking about IVF, IVF will probably be thrust upon you. Our NHS experience was very like a conveyor belt. If you present to your GP with infertility issues then the motor starts and – whether you’re aware of it or not – you start being moved towards this kind of treatment. If you haven’t thought beforehand about what you believe, the consultant’s surgery is not the ideal time to start. So here are some pointers…

1. For many doctors IVF is just the go-to procedure for infertile couples. Adoption and other fertility treatments don’t often get a look-in in their calculations. So, check out the alternatives in advance.

2. Remember that the decisions lie with you. Quite often treatments are presented to you as “package deals”, but you have choices and you will need to research and fight for these. As you’ll see below, we had to be clear at many points that we wanted something “off the menu”.

3. Whatever treatment you opt for, it’s a process.  This is also important to stop you living on a knife-edge every time you get a blood test or wait to see if your eggs are growing or if they implant .  There are lots and lots of little milestones; and for your own sanity, you need to think long-term. The NHS recommended no of tries is 3. But that will depend on whether or not you can face more than one, if you’re able to get funding towards it and whether or not you’re suitable for IVF.

4. Give it your best shot – but remember that it’s not down to you.  So, if there are obvious things you can do to improve your chances, then do it. Quit smoking, stop eating junk, cut back or out on alcohol.  Maybe take a multi-vit.  If you’re underweight or overweight, try to get to a normal BMI, (your consultant will probably recommend this too).  BUT.  Don’t go mad on moon cycles, goji-berries, tantric breathing etc. Don’t go on the Brazil nut diet. And try to live as normally as possible and focus on other things.

5. You are not alone. Infertility affects one in seven couples in the UK. It is not a reflection on you or your worth or your partner or your relationship or your sexuality or your faith. You’ll need to remind yourself of this, sometimes on an hourly basis.

6. Be aware that your consultant and team may have a completely different world-view to you. Listen to their advice, but don’t be intimidated, remember that it’s your body and your choices and that you can set the agenda, providing…

7. you think through some big questions in advance.  Things you need to know before you start the process.  I can’t emphasise this enough: it’s hard enough trying to work out what you feel, without doing it pumped full of hormones and with a consultant who may not agree with your views. Your emotions are very powerful, so work things out with your brain first and you won’t be led by them later. For example:

a. When do you think life begins?  And how will this affect your decisions e.g. about how many eggs to fertilise/implant?

In a normal cycle, you collect and fertilise as many eggs as possible (say 8-10 eggs), and then pick out the best looking ones to put back. You then either destroy the others or can opt to freeze them, (they can be stored for two years, though 40% die during the thawing process).

We worked on the principle that life begins at fertilisation.  So we did a modified version of IVF where we fertilised only two eggs each cycle (so that even if both fertilised, both could be implanted). From our consultant’s perspective, this was crazy: and he tried very hard to persuade us otherwise.  (From his perspective this dramatically reduced our changes of success and thus the clinic’s overall performance). If we hadn’t worked it out in advance we would have found it even harder to stand our ground – and as it was, it was difficult.  Here’s another question;

b. How many times will you try IVF? This may be determined by all sorts of things, including finance and mental health.  But its good to work it out as a team in advance – and to think ahead about what you’ll do if it doesn’t work. Be aware too that you can’t be considered for adoption whilst you are trying for IVF (or for a short time after).

c. What will you do if things go wrong? One of my cycles was cancelled because I didn’t respond to the medication, (this is very rare and we still don’t know why).  On another, the clinic phoned to say that one egg hadn’t fertilised and the other wasn’t viable. We went into the clinic to find out what they meant, and it was only then that we were told the other egg had fertilised but was triploid; in other words it had a complete extra set of chromosomes and would die shortly after birth, if not before. The clinic assumed that the egg would be destroyed but we wanted it to be implanted, ( a decision that involved calls to lawyers and the Human Embryology Centre). Regardless of whether or not we made the ‘right’ decision, had we not asked difficult questions and fought our corner, we wouldn’t even have known what had happened.

d. How will you build your life whilst the process goes on and if it doesn’t work?  Infertility places couples under enormous pressure and is emotionally, physically and financially draining.  If you let it, it will define you and your lives.  It’s also very easy to withdraw from others, precisely when you need reminding that there’s a world outside of the IVF craziness.  This doesn’t mean sharing your experiences with everyone, (unless you want to), but it does mean thinking in advance about who you will tell and letting them know how they can pray for and support you. Your relationship with the Lord is absolutely critical: if that’s going well and everything else is falling apart you can stand; if that’s going bad, then it’s very hard to keep going. So make time to spend with other believers, praying about the process and reminding one another of the truths of His word.  Also, take those messy feelings – the anger and sadness and grief – to Him.  You can’t carry it all, but He can.


Places that can help (see also blog page):

Christian Medical Fellowship: Brilliant resources on lots of medical issues, including fertility options

Hannah’s page: Christian support for fertility challenges; Christian support for infertility and pregnancy loss

BAAF: British association for fostering and adoption






6 thoughts on “The F Word

  1. This is such a helpful resource. I have had many friends walk this journey, and it is such an emotionally hard one. It’s great if people can be slightly more prepared ahead of time for some of those really difficult ethical questions.

  2. Glad to hear that adoption is given a mention in your infertility post.

    It saddens me deeply that in the multi-million pound industry that fertility treatment is, adoption is often not considered until fertility treatments options are exhausted. And this is reflected in the way Christians speak about undesired childlessness and the assumptions that are made about what to do for those who find themselves in this situation.

    As my painful season of trying to conceive and deliver a live baby (but failing) drew to a close, the world’s seven billionth person was born. The irony of all the resources (emotional, financial, time) that are invested in fertility treatment alongside the thousands of children needing fostering / adoption (as well as the levels of poverty experienced in other countries) stood out to me in a profound way. If we follow Jesus, it must make a difference in every area of our lives including how we allocate resources to the pursuit of trying to become a birth parent.

    It would be wonderful if more Christians (not just those who are infertile / childless) thought about adoption / fostering and if this included a generation of Christians for whom adoption / fostering is the first step in growing a family. As John Piper eloquently expounds, adoption is at the very heart of God and the gospel and is fundamental to our identity as Christians. The church community is not yet known in UK as one for whom adoption / fostering is common place….

    A new charity, ‘Home for Good’, has made significant progress in helping many churches to see how supporting people to adopt / foster makes a huge impact, not just for the children who are given families and the chance for a positive future, but also for opportunities Christians then have to share the reasons for the hope we have in Jesus with those who would usually not listen.

    To date our own experience of forming a family through adoption has been exhausting but deeply joyful in a way that is difficult to even begin to describe. Adoption does not resolve the pain of infertility – in some ways it hides it further as childlessness is no longer – it is a different and completely valid path to parenthood that I long for more to experience for the benefit of precious, vulnerable children made in God’s image and for God’s glory.

    Alongside infertility treatment comes a soul searching, heart wrenching series of decisions. We hold the same perspective as you on when life starts and our decisions throughout fertility investigations and treatment were consistent with this view. I agree it’s wise to be prepared for difficult ethical questions. However you cannot anticipate every eventuality – without going into specifics, we certainly encountered complexities along our journey that were impossible to anticipate beforehand. Talking and praying through some of the decisions we needed to make with trusted godly friends was helpful.

    Finally, it’s good to recognise that although everyone who enters the door of a fertility clinic has something profoundly sad in common (i.e., undesired childlessness / inability to conceive / bring a baby to term) those who exit the fertility clinic are in 2 very distinctly different groups. Most well known / promoted in clinic marketing are those who go on to welcome birth children to their family and less obvious are those who never do. There is a very big difference between infertility that is a ‘season’ in someone’s life that ends and infertility that is life long. Inevitably most people who speak about infertility are in the first category, that is, those who do end up with birth children. It is possibly easier to talk about infertility when it is not a forever situation but sadly this can lead to further misunderstanding and grief for those who never become birth parents.

  3. Emma this is an excellent post- thank you and thank you for highlighting the difficult ethical questions involved in IVF or any fertility treatment. I worked in an assisted conception unit during my training and these are excellent question for people to work through. As you say it is better to think these things through before you get to the clinic than when you are desperate and hormonal. It is an area that Christians in these kind of difficulties find difficult to discuss as often they don’t know enough to ask the right questions and it is hard for others to ask the hard questions of the couple especially if you have children, as this can seem insensitive and cruel. Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *