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Why It Matters

Boosting hopes for an IVF baby

After many requests over the years, the Health Ministry has decided on a three-year trial to check that embryos used in assisted reproduction have the correct number of chromosomes, in hopes that it could boost couples' chances of having a baby.

Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said this was because of new and better technologies for screening embryos.

Doctors agree that embryos that do not contain the correct number of 46 chromosomes are the primary reason for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) failures - either because the embryos do not "take" and no pregnancy results, or the pregnancies end in miscarriage.

In theory, ensuring embryos used have the correct number of chromosomes through screening before they are implanted could help eliminate such failures. But studies on such screening in countries that allow it show very different results, from significantly higher rates of pregnancy, to no difference at all in the number of babies born and, in some cases, to inferior results. So, it is not a magic bullet.

Still, it is not fair to deny couples the hope that such screening could improve their chances. The number of assisted reproduction treatments has been rising, from 4,450 in 2010, to over 6,000 a year since 2014.

Obviously, there is a demand. Singapore also needs more babies. Unfortunately, the success rate is fairly dismal, with only one in five women undergoing assisted reproduction giving birth. IVF is also costly, uncomfortable, and its failures can be heartbreaking.

Anything that could improve the chances, especially for older women or those who have tried more than once, is a good thing.

So, why is there a need for a trial?

Genetic screening costs thousands of dollars. So, unless we are sure that it does result in more babies born, it needs to be approached with caution. Making it a free-for-all could result in some doctors overselling it. But if the trial results are positive, screening should be available to all.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2016, with the headline 'Boosting hopes for an IVF baby'. Print Edition | Subscribe