June 20, 2005

Conception Tourism Spreads as Infertility Soars

COPENHAGEN -- Couples wanting babies are criss-crossing the globe in search of treatment as infertility in the developed world looks set to double within a decade, scientists say.

Dutch women travel to Belgium for sperm donation because there is a shortage in their own country. Donated egg recipients cross the border because it is not allowed in Germany.

Lesbian couples travel from France to get treatment that is not available to them in their own country, while Italians are going abroad because their country has the strictest fertility law in Europe, according to Professor Guido Pennings of Ghent University in Belgium.

The cause is a combination of declining natural fertility, rapid scientific advances in treatment, and a mix of national regulations as countries struggle with the ethics of it all.

Fertility, Science, and Law

Despite research showing that fertility declines in the 30s, women are delaying having children. Sexually transmitted diseases can cause infertility, and obesity, which is linked with difficulty ovulating, makes the problem worse.

About one in six couples suffer from a fertility problem.

"It looks as if the amount of infertility in the western world could double in the next decade," Professor Bill Ledger, a fertility expert at Sheffield University in England, told a meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology Monday.

"These young people will be wanting to have effective treatment," he told the meeting in Copenhagen.

Thousands of patients are traveling abroad seeking either cheaper or quicker fertility treatments, or procedures not available in their own country, Pennings said in an interview.

Belgium, Switzerland and Spain are among the most popular European nations for reproductive tourism.

"You also see it happening between more distant countries. It depends on what you want," Pennings said.

For sex selection treatment, many couples favor the United States and Jordan. Spain is popular for people seeking egg and sperm donors, he added.

Clinics are even offering fertility packages.

"They arrange your visa. They arrange your hotel. They arrange anything. It is all included in the price. It is a way to make patients comfortable," said Pennings.

Internet Impact

The Internet has also had a big impact.

"If you go on the Internet and look for egg donation, you will find a number of clinics all over the world which offer services. It means anyone can get information on any clinic, anywhere. It allows people to choose," said Pennings.

"In my clinic we get patients for all kinds of reasons."

Governments are struggling to set ethical and medical guidelines at a time of rapid advances in an area of great concern to bodies such as the still powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Italy last year clamped down on a liberal regime that had allowed a 62-year-old to give birth and appeared to be paving the way for human cloning. Efforts to unpick what is now the most restrictive law in Europe failed in a referendum last week.

A spokesman for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates fertility treatment in Britain, advised a cautious approach to reproductive tourism.

"If you go abroad you don't know what you'll be getting and you are taking a risk," said John Paul Maytum. "It will also be a lot harder to get follow-up support."