At our recent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
meeting, we took the decision to remove a condition that relates to our
multiple births policy from all IVF clinics' licences. The
decision came after two years of legal challenge from two London clinics
arguing against the licence condition, which expects all clinics to reduce
their multiple live birth rate to no more than 10 percent of all live births.
In stark contrast to the reasons given in the media, we have removed this
particular sanction not because we have changed our mind about the pressing
need to reduce the incidence of multiple births following IVF — that need
remains and the policy stands. Nor was it because a recent court case ruled
that it was an inappropriate use of our powers — that was a determination of when we should apply a licence condition, not whether.
Instead, we did it
because we felt that it would be wrong to continue to spend significant amounts
of public money defending a challenge which meant that two years from when the
condition was first introduced, it does not appear on two clinics' licences.
This is simply unfair to practitioners in all the other clinics, who have
continually called for there to be a level playing field. And, with further
legal challenge likely, this unfairness could have continued for some time to
The Authority members agreed that it would be far better to focus our scarce
resources on more productive activities: helping and supporting the sector to
continue its progress towards the 10 percent target.
So, how have they been getting on? Very well, in fact. Another inaccuracy in
the media coverage was that we removed the sanction because IVF clinics are
failing to meet our targets. This is simply not so. The IVF sector has risen to
the challenge admirably — a particularly impressive feat, given that it is a
sector where competition between clinics' performance is a key feature. Any
slight advantage in terms of success rates gives the advantage to one's
Since the policy was implemented in 2009, the IVF sector has
brought the multiple birth rate down from 24 percent of live births to 16
percent in 2012. Overall, it has reached the targets we have set year on year,
and is heading strongly for the 10 percent target in place since October 2012.
All this has been achieved without significantly impacting upon success rates
overall. This, along with good information and consistent messages from clinic
staff, has helped to turn patient views around from a largely hostile response
in the early days to a much greater acceptance of single embryo transfer today.
So, the policy is working. And it is working largely because of the approach
we have taken: working closely with professionals in the IVF field, patient
groups, paediatricians and commissioners to build consensus on the need to
reduce multiple births and taking steps to do just that. Without the close
collaboration of the professional bodies in the field, it simply would not have
Our approach is outcome-based: it is up to practitioners to use their
clinical freedom to determine which patients are the most suitable for single
embryo transfer. We cannot — nor should we — dictate individual clinical
decisions. That's why a professional consensus on the need to reduce the
incidence of multiple births — backed up by professional standards and the NICE
guideline — has been so important. But, let us not kid ourselves. Without our
commitment as the regulator it would not have worked. Using a combination of
ongoing monitoring of individual clinics' outcomes, creating opportunities for
sharing good practice and providing good information for patients and
professionals through our One at a Time website, we have nudged clinics towards
a target they would not have reached alone.
So, what next for multiple births? Well, in many respects it is business as
usual. After all, the licence condition was only a small element of our policy.
We will continue to enforce the policy through ongoing monitoring and
inspection, backed up by best practice guidance and the existing requirement to
have an effective multiple births minimisation strategy in place. We will
continue to work with professional and patient organisations to support clinics
and, most importantly, we will still expect clinics to comply with the policy.
We are not there yet, but we are well on the way to 10 percent. By
continuing to work together — practitioners, professional bodies and the
regulator — we can and will achieve that target, in the interests of mothers
and their babies.
Multiple births policy will be discussed by a panel including the HFEA's Director of Compliance Nick Jones at the Progress Educational Trust conference 'Double Take: Twins in Genetics and Fertility Treatment', taking place in London on Wednesday 4 December 2013.