Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, on the Adjournment Motion: Giving more support to couples undergoing IVF.
Sir, I have shared stories about my children numerous times in this House. Being a parent to Ella, Katie and Poppy has been one of the greatest joys for my wife Amy and I.
I share so many stories of them because I’m grateful that I have three happy healthy children. I’m grateful for all the lessons they have taught me and they have undoubtedly made me a better person. I love and treasure them so much and I want to share the joys of being a parent with everyone.
Sir, beyond all these, I’m simply grateful to be able to have kids. Amy and I fought very hard to have children. There was a point in our lives when we could not have kids.
The story I have shared less is that we were able to have our three children only with the help of in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
Going through IVF was like being on an emotional roller coaster ride. It was a journey filled with pain and anguish, excitement and disappointment and hope and happiness at times. It was financially, physically and emotionally draining.
We were only able to have a child at our seventh IVF attempt. When we were undergoing IVF, I was taking home a salary of about $2,000 a month. We had to pour all our income and savings towards having a child.
Like us, many couples have struggled to conceive. KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital says 15 percent of couples are unable to conceive within 12 months of trying for a baby.
This number is also increasing. There were over 7,700 assisted reproduction procedures carried out in 2017, up from about 5,500 in 2013. A 40% increase in just 4 years.
Fertility is an existential problem in Singapore, and the government has done much, such as expanding the Baby Bonus Scheme, to provide more support to couples in their decision to have children and to lighten the financial costs of raising children.
But I don’t think we are doing enough for those who want but struggle to have children.
I met several such couples at a dialogue session I organised last November through the Singapore IVF Support Group. The couples spoke candidly about the many challenges they faced. I thank them for sharing their personal stories and passionate recommendations with me.
Today, I will share their stories with you and offer four proposals on how the government can help couples like them.
Proposal 1: Increase number of subsidized IVF cycles
My first proposal is for the government to subsidise more cycles of IVF.
For most couples, IVF is a story of trying and trying again because only about 18% of attempts succeed.
This is not a cheap procedure. Each cycle, each roll of the dice, can cost up to $15,000 at our public hospitals.
The government does help with subsidies for six cycles. Starting from the seventh cycle, you pay the full, unsubsidised amount.
This is a painful reality for many couples. One couple I met is Josephine and Winston. They have gone through 9 IVF cycles, paying about $20,000 out-of-pocket and $15,000 via Medisave already.
Today, they are still without a child and will continue to try. It will cost them.
Another couple I met is Cheryl and Keith. They were luckier. By the sixth cycle, the very last subsidised cycle, they managed to conceive and are now happy parents to a bubbly one year old.
But they now find themselves in an agonising position of wanting a second child. They wonder: Can we really afford to go through IVF unsubsidised?
I should pause here and clarify that nobody chooses to do a seventh cycle of IVF unless they have to. Each cycle involves mood-changing medication, weeks of daily painful injections and multiple visits to the doctor.
We can and we should do more. I’m not proposing that we extend subsidies to an unlimited number of cycles. I propose that we extend subsidies to the 7thand 8th IVF cycle. If needed, we can reduce the subsidies for these cycles to ensure that the scheme remains sustainable.
Sir, I should add that the government has previously increased the number of subsidised cycles. This was done about 7 years ago and it is time for us to review this again.
If the argument is that most couples have a successful pregnancy before or during their sixth cycle, then extending subsidies to the seventh and eighth cycle would not cost the government much. Why not then?
We should remember that this additional subsidy is meant for couples – such as Josephine, Winston, Cheryl and Keith – who have clearly shown, through years of trying, that they are serious about wanting to become parents. They deserve our support.
Proposal 2: Introduce subsidies for PGD and allow Medisave payment
My second proposal is to introduce subsidies for Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) and allow the balance to be paid out of Medisave, subject to a limit.
PGD is sometimes conducted during IVF cycles and is important in two ways.
One, for couples with a family history of genetic disorders, it ensures that the embryo does not inherit serious medical conditions.
Two, PGD increases the likelihood of a pregnancy being successful. Studies by researchers at the University of Valencia and at Japanese hospitals found that PGD significantly reduced miscarriages and increased the chances of pregnancy.
This of course means happier outcomes for couples. It might also mean lower costs for the government, as fewer IVF cycles may be needed before a successful pregnancy.
Yet for all its benefits, not a single dollar of subsidy or Medisave is available for PGD.
PGD can be expensive. For Amelia and Geoffrey, paying $18,000 for PGD was the only way to prevent their second child from inheriting a rare genetic disease that can lead to liver failure.
Another couple, Sophia and John, had already faced three miscarriages. They found that a genetic condition was at fault and had to pay $10,000 for PGD to prevent more miscarriages and to avoid birth defects.
I hope the numbers are as big a shock for members of this House as they were for these couples. These are huge sums of money.
Sir, my proposal is that we extend the current IVF subsidy structure to PGD. For Singaporean couples, this means a 75% subsidy for PGD for subsidised IVF cycles.
PGD is needed only by a small percentage of couples, so overall subsidy costs for the government are likely to be limited.
We should also allow PGD to be paid using Medisave, subject to a cap so that Medisave does not get exhausted by such procedures. This is already the case for IVF treatments.
Couples deserve their chance to have healthy children, and we should support them.
Proposal 3: Remove fresh and frozen quota for subsidized IVF cycles
My third proposal is to remove the quota on fresh and frozen cycles for subsidised IVF treatment.
Currently, the government’s subsidy of six IVF cycles comes with a condition: three of the cycles must be “fresh” and the other three must be “frozen.”
I will spare this House the scientific nitty-gritty on what fresh and frozen mean. But suffice to say, expert opinion is split and the medical literature is inconclusive about whether one is clearly better than the other.
Indeed, Minister Gan himself said last October: “The success rates for fresh and frozen eggs are largely comparable”.
Sir, I think this quota adds unnecessary stress on couples undergoing IVF. Some couples may need one fresh cycle and five frozen cycles while others may need five fresh cycles and one frozen cycle.
Giving couples more flexibility might help reduce the stress and anxiety these couples face and lowering their stress and anxiety levels might help increase their success rates.
I propose we drop the three-fresh, three-frozen quota for IVF subsidies. We simply provide subsidies for a given number of cycles, which can be either fresh or frozen.
Proposal 4: Provide fertility leave
My final recommendation is about time. Financial subsidies are important but providing people with precious time is also important. I propose we introduce fertility leave for both husbands and wives to take time off work for IVF treatments.
IVF is an extremely stressful journey. This is particularly true for working women, who have to juggle their career alongside the side effects and time commitments of their IVF treatments.
Sir, I asked over 160 people who worked while they were doing IVF. More than half found it difficult to take time off work for IVF related treatments.
The existing 14 days of sick leave is clearly insufficient for them. Some end up taking no-pay leave and this is a strain on their already tight budgets due to IVF.
As for men, I believe we want to be with our wife during these tough times.
When I spoke with Amelia and Geoffrey, Geoffrey told me that he wished he could take more time to accompany Amelia to her IVF appointments. But he cannot take MCs to accompany his wife to these appointments.
So the reality is that even on the sacred topic of making a baby, many Singaporeans are dependent on the goodwill of their employers. This is not right.
I propose that we allow husbands and wives to take several days of fertility leave per year. To ensure the leave is taken for its intended purpose, we can consider requiring employees to furnish MCs from fertility clinics and allow fertility clinics to provide men with MCs when they accompany their wife for the IVF appointments.
In addition to allowing Singaporean women to more easily access IVF treatments, fertility leave also has two additional positive side effects.
First, it could help with our fertility rates. South Korea, a country with fertility rates nearly identical to ours, introduced fertility treatment leave as part of their effort to raise fertility rates.
Second, it makes clear that fertility treatments like IVF are not the concern of women alone. The emotional support of their husbands is essential. Just like parenting, conception should be a two-person job.
Sir, let me end by saying that the government has done a lot in expanding access to and affordability of assisted conception treatments.
Over the years, we have introduced the co-funding scheme for IVF treatments, increased the co-funding to more cycles and also increased the co-funding limits. We have also lifted the age limit of 45 years old for women to undergo IVF and extended subsidies to woman who are 40 years or older.
I’ve also raised the issue of Pre-implantation Genetic Screenings (PGS) previously and I’m glad the government has started a pilot for this.
It is also positive news that the government is considering allowing IVF subsidies to apply at private fertility treatment centers and is reviewing government support for PGD and PGS.
These are all welcome developments.
But we can and we should do more. In summary, my proposals are:
These proposals will help more couples undergoing IVF and most importantly reduce their stress levels as they embark on this stressful but potentially rewarding IVF journey. Potentially rewarding for the couple and also for Singapore as we try hard to increase our total fertility rate.
Sir, I will say again that parenthood has been one of the best journeys of my life. Ella, Katie and Poppy bring us immeasurable joy every single day. And of course to be honest, immeasurable pain at times as well. My three little ones are fortunately and unfortunately as stubborn as me.
I have more stories to share. Recently, Poppy gave me a kiss in the morning, said, “I love you daddy” and then went back to sleep. I love these warm fuzzy feeling moments.
I love the silly moments too. I sometimes find photos Katie has taken of herself on my phone without me knowing and some selfies she took together with me while I was asleep. Those are the only photos on my phone where my centre parting is not perfectly dead centre.
And I love the proud moments. Ella will pick up snails and caterpillars and move them off the pavement so nobody will step on them. As they said, “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as important to the child as it is to the caterpillar”.
Sir, I hope everyone will have the chance to experience these moments and to share these stories of their loved ones.
The road here was a difficult one. For Amy and I as well as Josephine, Winston, Cheryl, Keith, Amelia, Geoffrey, Sophia and John and many many other couples, parenthood is a castle with high walls. We must do everything we can to open the gates to those who come knocking.
I know I’m asking for the government to give out more money, increase our expenditure at a time when our budgets are tight. But what we are offering fellow Singaporeans is a chance to be a parent and that is truly priceless.
Let me end with a quote as always.
“Nothing brings us more elated joy or paralysing fear. Nothing is so wonderful and daunting, heart-breaking and soul-lifting, taxing and exhilarating as raising a child. And certainly nothing will stretch us, inspire us, and motivate us to better ourselves quite like being the one that little person looks up to.”
I should also end by saying that I’m not speaking up to get more subsidies so that I can have more children. Sir, my castle is full. I’m terribly outnumbered with a queen and three princesses. This castle is permanently closed.
But Sir, I know what others are going through and I hope we do more for them so that more couples can enjoy the gift of parenthood. Thank you.
Watch the speech here.