For many women—and men—around the world, infertility is a dire burden that comes with intense social stigma and community ostracism. It can lead to marital duress, divorce, and abandonment. No wonder, then, that many infertile couples are willing to undertake extensive reproductive travel to have kids.
In the twenty-first century, infertile women and men who cross national and international borders in pursuit of conception through IVF are often called “reproductive tourists.” It is fair to claim that reproductive tourism is as old as IVF itself. For example, Lesley Brown, the world’s first test-tube mother, would be considered a reproductive tourist by today’s standards. She and her husband John traveled across southern England (from Bristol to Cambridge) to meet the inventors of IVF, Cambridge University professor Robert G. Edwards and his physician partner, Dr. Patrick Steptoe. The world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was delivered on July 25, 1978, in a distant third location (Oldham Hospital, Lancashire) to avoid media scrutiny and moral condemnation. Within weeks of Louise’s birth, long-term infertile couples were traveling from all over Europe to Bourn Hall, Cambridge, the world’s first IVF clinic, to obtain the new technology of conception.
Since then, political and legal scholars have been at pains to describe the phenomenon, about which there is still relatively little known. The existence of cosmopolitan clinics such as Dubai’s Conceive that attract people from around the world suggests that the scale may be surprising. The largest empirical study to date—sponsored by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology Taskforce on Cross Border Reproductive Care—involved 46 IVF clinics in six destination countries in Europe, including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland. Based on the analysis of 1,230 completed patient questionnaires, the study estimated that there was a minimum of 24,000–30,000 cross-border IVF cycles in Europe each year, involving 11,000–14,000 patients. The main reason for travel, according to the patients who responded to the survey, was “unfriendly” legislation in their home
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