Europe’s chaotic response to its demographic crisis is threatening public health systems and economic growth, the continent’s top fertility experts will warn on Monday.
Paul Devroey, chairman of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, will call at the society’s annual conference in Prague for a continent-wide solution to falling birth rates.
The lack of research into why fertility had dropped so far as well as poor data on the performance of clinics performing assisted conception were “crazy”, Prof Devroey told the FT.
Prof Devroey is calling for a pan-European fertility organisation to fund research into the causes of fertility loss and spread policy ideas. While governments have tried increasing paternity leave or benefit payments, they have funded very little scientific research.
Mohamed Taranissi, medical director of the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre in London, warned that fertility was declining for a wide variety of factors, many of which might never be proved. One reason was a “have-it-all” society where couples delayed children until it was too late. “IVF cannot overcome nature,” he said.
Falling birth rates will cut the European Union’s potential annual economic growth rate from 2.2 per cent to 1.9 per cent between 2011 and 2030, and to 1.3 per cent from 2031 to 2050, says the European Commission. Healthcare spending will increase from 6.4 per cent of GDP in 2004 to 8 per cent in 2050. There are huge implications for pension provision. By 2050 one-third of the population will be aged 65 or more, as against one-fifth now.
There has been a slight recovery in birth rates since 2000, which some experts attribute to improved childcare benefits, but the average number of children per women is still around 1.3 in Greece, Italy and Spain. Of the EU’s 15 “old” member states, only Ireland with 1.99 and France with 1.94 come close to the 2.1 rate required to replace of the population.
Up to 5 per cent of births in the union involve IVF and other forms of assisted conception. Private clinics carry out most of the treatment, charging up to €4,000 ($5,050, £2,730) for each attempt at IVF and often implanting more than one egg at a time.
About 15 per cent of men and women in the EU are infertile. Thousands of Europeans crisscross the continent for treatment because the rules differ widely in different countries, spending up to €100,000. In Belgium, where state provision is widespread, one-third of patients come from abroad.
Bart Fauser, of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, will today unveil research showing that implanting a single embryo is almost as likely to produce a baby as implanting two or three embryos – and carries fewer health risks for mother and child. It is also 20 per cent cheaper.
“Twin pregnancies are a catastrophe,” said Prof Devroey. The babies were more likely to die in the womb or be born with disabilities, while parents of twins were more likely to divorce or have psychological problems. “The state health system has to pick up the bill for that later in life,” said Prof Fauser.
However, Dr Taranissi said that in the UK only 15 per cent of twins born were artificially conceived – and they had fewer health problems than naturally conceived identical twins.
In any case, “the relative risks of cerebral palsy and such things may be four or times higher but the absolute risk is usually still very small,” he said.
He said that as important as a healthy embryo was the environment in the womb. His clinic had pioneered a number of tests to ensure healthy embryos thrived. “Many of our patients have been elsewhere first and have a successful outcome here.”
Get alerts on World when a new story is published