Nfld. & Labrador

For population-challenged N.L., IVF services a no-brainer for advocates

People trying to get pregnant have some fertility options available within the province, but in-vitro fertilization isn't one of them. That's something Ledon Wellon and a group of advocates hope to change this provincial election.

'It's not an issue for you, until it is,' says Ledon Wellon, who started Faces of Fertility Facebook group

Ledon Wellon says fertility treatments and IVF are aspects of the health-care system that people might not think about until they desperately need them. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

People trying to get pregnant in Newfoundland and Labrador have some fertility options available within the province, but in-vitro fertilization isn't one of them. That's something a group of advocates hopes to change this provincial election.

Newfoundland and Labrador is one of two provinces in Canada that does not have in-province IVF services, says Ledon Wellon.

Instead, people must travel out of the province for weeks at a time for the necessary treatments and procedures aimed at helping them get pregnant.

In May, when Wellon was frustrated that the St. John's fertility clinic wasn't reopening in the COVID-19 pandemic, she started the Facebook group Faces of Fertility.

"I think it was really important that people knew that, because I didn't know it until I needed it," she said.

In the nine or so months since the page has started, it's garnered more than 3,000 followers, and Wellon hopes it's raised awareness about the kind of ordeal would-be parents go through.

"Infertility is such a roller coaster of emotions anyway; it's really hard going through it because it's something that society tells you you're not supposed to talk about," Wellon told CBC's Here & Now on Wednesday.

"And then having to pick up your life, take a whole three weeks off, travel across the country to a clinic that you're not familiar with, where you don't know or trust the people yet, and then be away from your home while you're pumping yourself full of hormones, you're on all kinds of medications, you don't feel comfortable, you're having surgery, and you have to do that all from a hotel room."

The travelling is one thing; the cost is another, Wellon said.

"I've heard of people going tens of thousands, even a hundred thousand dollars, into debt just trying to have a child, and it's free for so many people and so easy for so many people. It's just heartbreaking knowing that our location and financial ability prevents us from having a child," Wellon said.

"For myself, it was around $13,000, plus the medication, which most insurance companies actually don't deem as necessary, so my medication was another $8,000."

In a post this week in the Faces of Fertility Facebook group, Wellon called on the party leaders running for re-election on Feb. 13 to take action on IVF.

"I want them to know that it's not a topic that's going to be brought up at the door. You're not gonna hear it from every person who needs it because it's such a private and personal issue, and while you're going through it, it's really hard to talk about it," Wellon said.

"I just want them to know that there's so many people who so desperately need these services offered here, and without someone blasting it open like I've been trying to do, you're not going to hear it from the people."

Promises of action

Since Wellon posted about it on Facebook and in media interviews, the leaders of the Liberals, New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives have all committed to doing something about it.

Liberal Leader Andrew Furey told CBC News on Friday he's "100 per cent committed" to the cause, and it's a part of the Liberal platform.  

"We've heard from parents, we've heard from families who are interested in availing to this service. We've heard from them for quite some time. This is a service that's been available in almost all other provinces across the country with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island," he said.

"We also recognize that there's a demographic crisis. We have some of the lowest fertility rates in the entire country and this is one tool that we can use to combat that."

NDP Leader Alison Coffin says she's heard heartbreaking stories from hopeful parents who have struggled to afford out-of-province IVF treatments. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

NDP Leader Alison Coffin said it's an issue she's asked about multiple times in the House of Assembly, and she's been speaking with some members of the Faces of Fertility group about their experiences.

"We do need better access to these fertility clinics, but what I had heard from the minister of health was that the cost was prohibitive," she said, adding that, if an in-province clinic can't be managed, the basic policy should at least cover some of the travel costs associated with IVF.

"We have a population decline. We want people to have babies here. Let's make it easy for them to do that," she said.

PC Leader Ches Crosbie said the IVF issue is on his election platform, and it will "absolutely" be a priority for his party.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie says the province needs to explore all its options to encourage population growth, including IVF. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"It deserves to be supported. As we all know, we have a declining population, the only province in the country that has that, so anything — like IVF — that helps create new residents, [helps] people have families and help with the population issue I would be in favour of," he said, adding the province needs to look at all of its options to encourage population growth.

"There are some things you can't afford not to do, and that's one of them."

'We're still in the dark'

For Nanci Corcoran, who has been fighting to get an IVF clinic set up in the province for years, the promises are cold comfort. Instead, she wants the politicians to put their money where their mouth is.

"Don't get me wrong, we're very thankful for it, it's great that it's finally becoming part of the conversation, it's great that people are finally shedding light on the topic. But we've heard those promises before," Corcoran said.

"In 2016, the Liberals promised that they would look at opening an IVF clinic in St. John's, they promised they would look at funding for having people go away. Nothing came of it. It's 2021, we're still in the dark.… While we're very thankful it's at the forefront, we want action."

Nanci Corcoran says politicians have previously promised IVF and fertility treatment help for those who need it, without following through. (CBC)

The possibility of easing the financial cost for travel related to IVF is "a start," Corcoran said, but it doesn't do enough.

"It's the basic of the basics, and it's what we should have been getting much sooner than now. But it's the tip of the iceberg," she said.

"We don't want funding for travel — we don't want to have to travel. Do you know how hard it is to leave your entire support system, leave your house, leave your family, leave your job for a minimum of three weeks go to another province live out of a hotel while you're going through an invasive medical procedure? Because that's what it is."

That sentiment is echoed by Wellon who, on Thursday, said she "can't get too excited" to hear politicians talking about it.

"It's nice to hear for sure, but we've been promised this before and nothing has happened," she said.

Wellon said one in six Canadian families have trouble conceiving, so while it may appear at first to be a niche issue that affects a small portion of the population, it has a wider, more long-term reach than people may first believe.

"It's not an issue for you, until it is. You don't know if you're the next one to need it, you don't know if your child is the next one to need it, and what happens when they don't have an extra $30,000 and they can't have the children that they so desperately want?" she said.

"It's nothing I've ever thought about until I was thrown into it, so it's not just an issue for the people dealing with it right now, it's an issue for so many people in the next five years, in the next 10 years, in the next 20 years, that they don't know yet."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Carolyn Stokes and Jeremy Eaton