By Ellen Arkfeld

In recent years, doctors in the UK have noted that younger women are more frequently opting to conceive through In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). For some, this process provides the opportunity to have children while remaining virgins.

The National Health Service (NHS) only covers IVF treatment for heterosexual women who have been trying to conceive via natural means for at least two years. But at least five clinics in the UK are now providing IVF treatment to women who do not meet these conditions.

Traditionally, IVF services were sought out by career-driven, heterosexual women in their 30s. But the demographics of the population seeking IVF as an alternative to natural conception have been shifting.

Maha Ragunath, the medical director of a Care Fertility center clinic, notes that “the number of single women I see has doubled over the last decade and single women now account for at least ten per cent of my patients. A lot of them are very young, in their 20s, sometimes studying or doing very ordinary jobs and often living with their parents, rather than career women who have been driven and focused too much on their work.”

And according to Tracey Sainsbury of the London Women’s Clinic, a great range of women are seeking IVF treatments, including women who are not heterosexual, women who have never been in a relationship, and women who have never had sexual intercourse.

At least 25 UK women have given birth even though they’ve never engaged in sexual intercourse. Their reasons for choosing this path vary: some women want to save sex for a special relationship, but feel that they are ready to begin a family; others choose not to have sex for psychological or medical reasons. Women who opt for IVF treatment are focused on having a child, rather than on romantic relationships or forming traditional families. Doctors say that generally women say that they are choosing IVF because “they are ready to have a child and they don’t want to wait around for the right partner to come along.”

The ability to conceive a child without ever having sex gives women an unprecedented amount of control over their reproductive processes. The freedom and control that this treatment allows young women has not gone without criticism. Most of this criticism expresses concern that IVF is encouraging the formation of non-traditional families, and that this may be unhealthy for both the women and the children.

Some critics are concerned that a lack of romantic partner will lead women to make decisions without giving the issue enough thought. Josephine Quintavalle, from Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said the process makes babies analogous to teddy bears for women to “pick off the shelf.” She claims that “the message from nature” is for a male and female to have a child. This claim, however, lacks empirical grounding. Tracey Sainsbury, a senior fertility counsellor, says she has “not met a single woman hoping to conceive who has popped in to the clinic on a whim, or who hasn’t thought about the implications of their decisions for themselves, their wider family and most importantly for any child conceived. There is no uncertainty about their desire to parent.”

Several religious figures in the UK have come forward with concerns that IVF will result in non-traditional families that are detrimental to child development and to women. James Newcome, the Bishop of Carlisle, says that “the ideal is that a child has a mother and a father who are married to each other. All the evidence shows that this is the best context for a child.” Imam Suhaib Hassan, the head of Britain’s Islamic Sharia Council, has said that without a man, a woman becomes “nothing but a breeding machine” and that through this process “a woman is denying the child a right to have a father.”

Additionally, some psychologists believe that having single mothers will have negative effects on child development. According to the Daily Mail, a leading psychotherapist warned that having a mother who has never been in a relationship may harm child development. Other psychologists maintain that for a woman to choose IVF over contraception through sex suggests emotional immaturity.

It is likely that these concerns are not strictly critiques of IVF treatment for single women, but are extension of concerns about the rising number of non-traditional families in general. According to the Office of National Statistics, there were two million single-parent households in Britain as of 2014. And according to Pew Research Center, less than half of all children in the United States live in a “traditional” family as of 2014. Additionally, a 2010 census by the Population Reference Bureau found that 24% of children in in the United States live with single mothers. IVF treatment has the potential to increase these numbers even further.

There is some statistical data that correlates single parenthood with relatively less financial and emotional security as compared to two-parent households. However, research also indicates that whether a mother is married or single has little bearing on child development. On the contrary, the biggest predictor of whether children have problems with grades, friends, or siblings is conflict between parents or between parents and children. In fact, studies have shown that single parents are often friendlier to their children than married parents. It may actually be beneficial to these children that women are not settling for relationships that they don’t want in order to become mothers.

Data also shows that many children who live with single parents have other important adults in their lives, and that single mothers rarely raise their children single-handedly. Children with single parents are more likely to form close relationships with extended family members. It may be premature to say that IVF treatment will lead to unstable families and disrupted child development.

Laura Witjens, the chief executive of the National Gamete Donation Trust, says that society tends to “freak out” when they hear about single women choosing to become mothers. But she also says that these women tend to be better prepared for parenthood financially, socially, and emotionally than mothers who have become single because of a failed relationship.

The doctors who provide IVF to women as an alternative to natural conception appear to take both sides into account. Clinics require every woman who undergoes IVF to see a counsellor before treatment so that they fully understand the process; the welfare of the children is taken very seriously. Witjens says that, “these women have a right to choose this path if they want to, but clinics do have the responsibility to consider why they want to do so.”

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