Stories of Our Times podcast recently published an episode entitled 'IVF, fraud, and 'unwanted' children', with guest Jenny Kleeman and podcast host David Aaronovitch. Kleeman, a Times Radio presenter and investigative journalist, shared stories about fathers who had IVF children without their consent. The stories are captivating: they touch on issues that many people grapple with – the need to communicate effectively and openly, being willing to compromise, and address difficult questions.
The first story was about Chris Dawson and wife Eva (both pseudonyms), who resided in Sweden and tried several rounds of IVF a decade ago with no success. Once they found out that the fertility issue was with Eva's eggs, they decided to pursue egg donation in Finland, as it was illegal in Sweden at the time. According to Chris, they went with a donor who resembled Eva, and did not give the whole process enough thought. They had several embryos made and frozen, and successfully had two children from IVF treatments.
Unfortunately, the whole experience was very taxing on their marriage. After a while, the clinic in Finland sent a letter asking about how to handle the remaining frozen embryos, and they talked about what they wanted to do. Chris said he did not want another child, but Eva did. Since they did not agree, Chris thought the issue was settled, but one day Eva announced to him that she was four months pregnant. She had travelled to Finland, forged his signature on the consent forms, and became pregnant from the IVF treatment all without his knowledge. Chris was furious but felt obligated to stay in the marriage for the sake of the children. They ultimately divorced when their youngest child was two years old but share custody of all three children.
Relationships, marriage, pregnancy, and childrearing are all lifechanging things that should be discussed and given sufficient thought and weight – it is easy to get tunnel vision, especially with highly emotional, taxing situations, rather than thinking through the potential ramifications of the decisions being made. As Kleeman stated in the podcast, time is a significant factor to consider – frozen embryos can last for years, but lives change, priorities change.
IVF is becoming more common, and so are frozen embryo transfers. In 1991, ten percent of IVF treatments in the UK used frozen embryo transfers, that rate had increased to 41 percent by 2019. According to Kleeman, 20,000 babies are born via IVF annually in the UK. Because the whole experience can be lengthy and onerous, people are vulnerable to the pressure of trying to do all they can, at any cost, regardless of necessity. Given that, this is a population that needs stronger guidelines and streamlined processes to make the experience as clear as possible.
Although Chris never sought legal action, others have. In the UK family court, an anonymous man sued fertility clinic, IVF Hammersmith, for damages because his ex-wife forged his signature to have a second child without his permission. They both had consented to the first IVF child, but then divorced. He wanted compensation for fraud and for the expenses of raising the second child, but this was denied. No legal changes have been made considering instances of fraud, but clinics are aware and have become more stringent in ensuring consent is obtained.
In the UK, clinics must be sure they have consent from both parties for fertility treatment. The first visit requires them both to be present, with identification, and provide signatures. Subsequent visits might not require both parties there – but, I believe, it might be useful to require them both to be present to ensure they agree on the next steps. I agree with Kleeman's proposal that it is not unreasonable to require the presence of both parents to physically sign consent forms for subsequent IVF treatments. As the podcast highlighted, the factor of time is noteworthy – things change, and this process takes time in itself – it is in everyone's best interest to gain consent from both parties. Ethically and logistically, this is straightforward and very similar to the requirements of the first visit. It should not place undue harm on people, but rather engage and verify everything is in order.