A full IVF cycle in Northern Ireland typically costs between £5,500 to £7,000, with one attempt for those eligible funded by the NHS.
If things don’t work out first time around, the financial barrier can put the dream of having a family out of reach for many.
A commitment in the New Decade New Approach deal in 2020 has pledged to fund three IVF cycles, but that has been added to the long list of stalled plans caused by the Stormont deadlock.
Taking matters into their own hands, the Fairness (IN) Fertility campaign group in Northern Ireland started a lottery to help more families secure funds for IVF treatment.
After five years, five babies have been born as a direct result of the grassroots initiative.
This includes one parent from Antrim who spent a staggering £30,000 on IVF treatment with no luck, only to be told they were expecting twins after winning on a £100 ticket.
While only so many are lucky enough to win in the draw, those taking part also know they are directly increasing the chances of others.
As the Irish government announced plans to fund IVF treatment this week, the parents of the five babies spoke to The Irish News about their life-changing lottery success.
Emma Walker (39) from Antrim and her partner Alison are parents to three-year-old twins Ivy and Jonah.
“I’m in a same sex couple so we had to go straight to fertility treatment. There was no free cycle in the NHS,” Emma said.
“We went to a clinic but it wasn’t working sadly. We had parted with around £30,000 and pretty much run out of money.
“My partner works with Deborah Cross (chair of Fairness (IN) Fertility), so I think they cooked this up together.”
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It was a Valentine’s draw in February 2018 when their winning numbers were finally picked.
“Deborah called us right away, I couldn’t believe it. I was supposed to be healthy but I went and had a brandy.”
After going through the treatment it was an anxious two weeks before the pregnancy was confirmed.
“I did the pee test and this faint blue line appeared. I did so many of them I could have had shares in Clearblue.”
It was during an appointment at a private clinic on the Lisburn Road in Belfast when Emma learned she was having twins.
“You could just see this tiny flicker of a heart beat on one side, and another. They told me ‘congratulations, there’s two babies’ and I just started crying.
“It was just disbelief, going from no children to having twins. You can’t get more life-changing than that.”
While welcoming the news of public IVF funding in the Republic, Emma said she disagrees with the criteria that excludes same-sex couples and single women.
“Leaving aside same-sex couples for one minute, plenty of women are single by choice.
“I can understand if someone has an extremely high BMI or is on the older side. But what’s the reason that a gay or single woman is excluded?”
“If you’re skinny, young and straight you’re in there. But sexuality and relationship status shouldn’t exclude you.”
Tara Gibson (35) from Belfast first started trying for a baby seven years ago after marrying her husband Daniel (40).
Speaking over a video call, she checks on her 15-month-old daughter Darci who was born after the family won the draw in December 2020.
Having been through one cycle funded by the NHS, she said the lack of success has been “absolutely heartbreaking and shattering”.
“After that we thought ‘we just can’t afford it’.”
Finding out she had stage four endometriosis, a consultant later told the couple they would never have children.
“They just said straight out, ‘you’ll never have kids,’ that’s the end of it. My husband wouldn’t take that for an answer so we went private for endometriosis surgery which cost £7,500.”
Remembering the “life-changing” moment she won the draw, she said: “I had actually picked the number 21, my dad had just passed away and that was his birthday.
“On Christmas Eve my daddy’s number came up. That was a wee sign from above as well.”
“Deborah called us straight away and me and my husband were screaming the house down.
“That was honestly the best Christmas present we could have got."
Managing to get pregnant on the first attempt, the couple also have seven eggs frozen in the hope of having a second child.
“It’s all down to Deborah. This wee madam (Darci) wouldn’t be here without Deborah. She just changes lives.”
On the need for three publicly funded cycles of IVF, she said: “When that one cycle doesn’t work it’s soul-destroying and crushing and you really don’t know where you’re going from there.
“It’s all you can think of 24/7, ‘if I had another cycle my family would be complete’. People just don’t understand the fear and trauma that goes along with it.
“If you had the three cycles, if it didn’t go right the first time it wouldn’t be as traumatising as you know there’s a backup.”
Emma added: “It’s the psychological cost that’s harder than the financial.”
Deborah said the cost of living crisis means that the extra support is more important than ever.
“There is a cohort of women out there, through no fault of their own, will never be in a position financially to afford it,” she said.
“People are worried about putting food in their fridge, so I think it’s more pertinent now to have three cycles than ever before.”
On her own experience, she has had eight cycles of treatment including one funded by the NHS.
“Still, sadly, I’m at a point where I don’t have a child. I did become pregnant during my most recent cycle last summer, but sadly had a miscarriage in November.
“That still doesn’t deter me because I know what other people are experiencing. If it’s not me, at least if I can support somebody else to realise their dream then I’ll reconcile that within myself.
“I would imagine when people don’t win, maybe for five or ten minutes they think about their own situation but then are very happy for the winners. The feedback you get that evening is just beautiful."
Karen Murray from south Down has two children through IVF, Callum (7) and Maisie (3).
“Thanks to this wonderful group, we were able to have a sibling for my son who we had via IVF on the NHS,” she said.
“We won this redraw in December 2018, after a fellow IVF warrior so kindly donated it back.
“Our beautiful daughter was born in December 2019. Our family is complete.”
The parent of a fifth child born after winning the draw, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “Can’t believe we have been blessed. The draw really does work magic for couples and makes dreams come true.
“I still can’t believe how our life has evolved since the night I got word that we won. Thanks for helping make our dreams come true."