By Judith Duffy, Health Correspondent
The Executive’s consultation on fertility treatment closed a year ago but has still not been published. Yet Scottish couples continue to face a postcode lottery over ever lengthening waiting times. For them, one thing is certain: every month that passes is an opportunity missed …
IT HAS been nearly 30 years since the birth of the world's first test tube baby sparked a storm of controversy. Last month the story of Louise Brown, who was born as a result of the technique known as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), came full circle when she gave birth to her own child - a boy called Cameron, who was conceived naturally.
Since Louise's arrival in 1978, it is believed that more than three million people worldwide have been conceived via IVF and other fertility treatments. It is estimated that one child in every primary school year in the UK was conceived through IVF. Yet decades on, the use of this technology is still provoking widespread debate.
Most of the outbursts surround the use of IVF for older women. Earlier this month, it enabled a 67-year-old Spanish woman to become the world's oldest mother, after she gave birth to twins at an age more associated with being a grandparent. Last summer, Briton Patricia Rashbrook triggered a similar flurry of criticism when she gave birth to a child, her fourth, through fertility treatment at the age of 62.
These may be exceptional cases, but the everyday provision of IVF treatment for the one in seven couples who are experiencing fertility problems has been also dogged by difficulties. And the spotlight is upon the issue once more following an investigation into a leading IVF doctor by the BBC's Panorama programme.
Watchdog body the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) last week obtained warrants to inspect private London clinics run by Dr Mohamed Taranissi, amid allegations an undercover reporter was offered "unnecessary and unproven" treatment and that one of the therapies offered was also alleged to be a potential health risk to an unborn baby.
For couples who are spending thousands of pounds on fertility treatment to pursue their dream of starting a family, it's a worrying scenario. But north of the Border, the scandal is not to be found in the private clinics - which are few and far between - but instead in the long waiting times and postcode lottery that exists on the NHS. Despite pledges by the Scottish Executive to improve equality of access to services more than a year ago, no action has yet been announced.
For those who have not had to face it, it is perhaps impossible to imagine the pain of infertility and the difficulties of going through treatment. Isobel O'Neill, the infertility counsellor at the Assisted Conception Unit at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the newly opened private clinic Glasgow Centre for Reproductive Medicine, points out that while it can be as devastating as a bereavement, it is rarely acknowledged as such.
"If you lose someone close, you have all sorts of things, like a funeral," she says. "But given that even the impact of miscarriage isn't fully appreciated, it is difficult trying to be understood about the loss of your fertility and the sense of having to have treatment.
"For people who don't have any experience of it, family and friends, they think, Well, there was never actually a baby there.' But every time a treatment fails, it's the loss of a hoped-for baby, so it is an enormous struggle."
Despite the alarm over the issues highlighted by the Panorama investigation, Sheena Young of support group Infertility Network UK points out that, unlike England, there is little private provision in Scotland: there are only two private clinics north of the Border - the Nuffield Hospital in Glasgow and the Glasgow Centre for Reproductive Medicine.