by Lisa Marsh, Path2Parenthood's London Correspondent
We are used to hearing about how the National Lottery or Euromillions has changed someone’s life, but have you ever contemplated a lottery that can actually result in new life? The UK charity, To Hatch, has just been granted a license by the Gambling Commission, allowing it to sell lottery tickets online. The prize, to be awarded monthly, is £25,000 worth of bespoke fertility treatment at one of the UK’s top clinics. Camille Strachan, the founder of To Hatch, has told the media that the lottery is more like a raffle, open to single, gay and older people as well as couples who have not been able to conceive. She explained “This is not a wacky stunt; it is about helping desperate people who cannot afford to go [for fertility treatment] privately.”
The plans for the IVF lottery were released to the media this week, prompting a flurry of comments by spokesmen from public interest groups and regulators, including the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA), the British Fertility Society (BFS) and Comment on Reproductive Ethics. All three voiced concern and negativity, the HFEA’s position that “using IVF as the prize in a lottery is wrong and entirely inappropriate.” While headlines branded it the “win a baby” monthly lottery, what is really being offered is access to treatment and a few conveniences such as accommodation in a luxury hotel, chauffeur-driven transportation from the hotel to the fertility clinic and a mobile phone for constant contact with doctors.
On the face of it, that all sounds like a dream come true for anyone who has failed to access fertility treatment through the National Health Service (NHS) due to age, the birth of previous children, their Primary Care Trust (PCT) insufficient budget or those who can’t afford private treatment. There would be a dozen lottery winners a year and the profits, approximately 20% of ticket sales, would go to Strachan’s charity, To Hatch, which offers fertility information and advice to members. Even for those who have already been footing the bill for IVF themselves, I anticipate that many would appreciate being pampered a bit while undergoing stressful treatment.
Having felt the desperation associated with infertility myself, I will admit that if I was still trying to conceive I would be tempted to buy a ticket for the IVF lottery. After all, with a lottery win, the time I spent consulting different doctors, going for lab tests, crying over the failure of the NHS to offer me help, trying to find the money for treatment and choosing a clinic, could have been spent feeling lucky, supported and hopeful. Furthermore, this is in no way a chance to “win a baby” as the news headlines are screaming. At its best, this scheme offers someone who wants a baby, not only the chance to pay for treatment, but also the ease of access to quality treatment in the UK that Strachan will provide. Let’s not forget, that plenty of UK residents who have been frozen out by the NHS restrictions on fertility treatment look into fertility tourism schemes that require them to go to countries such as the US, other European countries and India for treatment. The risks presented by treatment abroad include the lack of continuity of care and the differing regulations regarding fertility treatment.
The most substantive concern over what the IVF Lottery will actually provide centres on the possibility that winners could access donor sperm, donor eggs or even the services of a surrogate to carry their baby. Josephine Quintavalle from Comment on Reproductive Ethics demanded to know “surely it is not legal to pay £20 to have access to another woman’s womb?” Isn’t she missing the point? The surrogate wouldn’t be paid £20. The proceeds of the lottery win would be used to compensate her appropriately, within the restrictions imposed by law. Does it matter from whose pocket the compensation actually comes? Furthermore, there is no suggestion that winners are guaranteed to conceive, give birth to or otherwise receive a healthy baby; participating doctors will still be governed by medical ethics and regulations.
Other schemes already exist to defray the costs of treatment, such as the practice of offering fertile, gay women free or discounted IVF in exchange for their surplus eggs, which are then “sold” to infertile patients at the clinic. US fertility clinics run promotions offering free IVF, from which they build a mailing list, gain media attention and can claim to be philanthropic.
The Fertility Treatment Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, is currently running a promotion on their website: “Enter to win a FREE IVF Cycle worth an estimated $15,000. Open to the first 100 guests ONLY...RSVP today!” This type of promotion has already made an appearance in the UK; earlier this year, the Genetics & IVF Institute in Virginia and the London Bridge Centre offered a free cycle of Donor IVF to one attendee of their joint seminar in London.
If nothing else, the controversy over Strachan’s plans is positive; forcing more attention to be paid to the plight of those who can’t access appropriate fertility treatment in the UK. We need to keep the spotlight on the medical, lifestyle and environmental causes of infertility, the inability of the NHS to meet the demand for fertility treatment and the advances in medical science that could allow more people to create families of choice. I doubt that there would be this level of controversy if there was a cosmetic surgery lottery, a bariatric surgery lottery or a hip-replacement lottery. When balancing the arguably sensational and gimmicky nature of a lottery against the hope and joy it could give someone who wants a baby, I would have difficulty pointing the finger of disapproval at anyone who decided to give it a try.