Leading Article: Paying the price to create a baby

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The Independent Online
CHILDREN are said to be poor men's riches and women's jewels: the most valued product of most people's lives and their legacies beyond the grave. They confer a certain immortality on parents and bring with them a sense of completeness. As Lavache the Clown says in All's Well That Ends Well: 'I think I shall never have the blessing of God till I have issue o' my body, for they say barnes are blessings.'

Many people choose not to have a family and live happily with that decision. For others, infertility is often a tragedy. 'It is like a continual bereavement,' one young woman explained recently in this newspaper. She said that she would live in a tent if only she could have a baby. Her feelings will resonate with Britain's 2 million infertile couples, who have to cope not only with their frustration but also with the inadequacy of the health services that could help to turn their hopes into reality.

Couples experience delays of up to five years for assisted conception treatments such as in vitro (in the test-tube) fertilisation. Many never receive it because they cannot afford private treatment: half of Britain's health authorities do not provide even basic infertility services. Meanwhile, adoption is difficult. Yet, Professor Michael Hull of Bristol University contends, all but 4 per cent of women seeking treatment could have children if there were proper provision.

Against this background, one can understand the extraordinary comments yesterday by Richard Lilford, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Leeds General Infirmary. He called for infertility treatment to be made a higher priority in the NHS than chemotherapy for advanced cancers, hip replacements and cataracts. His argument testifies to the seriousness of the need to help the one in six couples who will at some time face difficulty conceiving. Indeed, a great many couples would rather go through life with a chronic illness or physical pain than have no children. However, setting such services against each other is over-dramatic. Infertility treatment would not drain the national budget so seriously as to threaten other services.

There are reasonably-priced, effective cures. A report published yesterday by the National Fertility Association states that the cost of conception for sub-fertile women under 30 averages pounds 6,500, rising to pounds 35,000 for women over 40. Such costs are too high for many couples who are turned away by the NHS.

In contrast, large sums are spent providing free treatment for other illnesses, when there is often only a small chance of success. It is also unjust that the NHS will pay for people to prevent childbirth - through abortions and contraception - but shows no generosity in resolving infertility. Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, should ensure that the NHS takes up its responsibilities to ensure a poor man's poverty is not marked by childlessness, but enriched by offspring.