New Zealand fertility rates: Kiwi patients share the heartbreak, uncertainty of their journeys to conception

The country has just recorded its lowest-ever fertility rate - and with one-in-four New Zealanders affected by infertility, a number of Kiwis are undertaking long, emotional and often expensive journeys in a bid to conceive. 

Fertility patients Taryn Ukass and Rachel Moana are no strangers to the ups-and-downs of trying for a baby. Both women have undertaken similar pathways to parenthood, with Ukass undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and Moana opting for ovulation induction (OI) and intrauterine insemination (IUI) via Fertility Associates, an organisation of fertility specialists helping New Zealanders to conceive. 

The two appeared on The AM Show on Thursday to share their respective journeys as part of the Big Picture series on fertility. Earlier this month, Statistics NZ released its latest quarterly data, showing the ratio of births to the number of women of childbearing age in New Zealand is now 1.63 - well below the 2.1 ratio required to keep the population growing.

Both Ukass and Moana had been actively attempting to get pregnant for years before beginning their fertility journeys - and both encountered similar hurdles. Ukass, who is currently 24 weeks pregnant, tried for almost five years before she and her partner decided to pursue IVF.

Ukass had struggled with compromised fertility after being diagnosed with cervical cancer in her 20s. Sixty percent of her cervix was removed, and she was informed that she may struggle to conceive.

By the time she had recovered from the surgery, Ukass was 26. She was told that as she was young, she didn't need to worry about conception - but should aim to get pregnant by the age of 30. Thirty came and went, and she and her partner had still not conceived - so they took matters into their own hands.

The couple, who began their fertility treatments in June, are fortunate enough not to carry the financial burden often accompanying fertilisation procedures, as their IVF was publicly-funded. Opting for private IVF comes with a $10,000 price-tag - an expense many Kiwis cannot afford.

The couple sat on the waitlist for 13 months - roughly the average waiting period for Kiwis eligible for publicly-funded IVF. Yet their first treatment, scheduled for April, was cancelled - throwing Ukass into the depths of uncertainty.

"After waiting 13 months, just to be like - I have no idea when this is going to pick back up again," she told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"Then you start ticking time over. We started fertility treatments in June… [but] it was definitely a toll. Life ticked on, we just get on and we do it… [you have to remember] you're doing it for a reason. 

"It was different because we didn't necessarily have the financial [burden], but the ups and downs - being unsure of what's going on and what was going to happen."

'You're young, you have time - don't worry'

For 25-year-old Moana, the difficulties of trying for a baby were often disregarded by her GP due to her young age. She and her partner, who have been together for almost 10 years, began attempting to conceive when they were 19. Moana was aware that she would struggle to get pregnant, but knew as a young woman that she wanted to start a family. 

The couple opted for the private route with Fertility Associates in February after six years of trying - and six years of having their concerns dismissed due to being in their early 20s.

"We were told that we were young, we were fine, we had time," Moana told The AM Show. "But it had been six years, and it was not getting any easier."

After their free 30 minute consultation with Fertility Associates, the couple were instructed to come in. Moana said the specialists were surprised they hadn't pursued fertility treatments earlier, considering their difficulties at conceiving despite being in their prime childbearing years.

Moana says they are fortunate to be able to pursue treatments privately, but the cost of repeated IVF is too vast an expense.

"Ovulation induction is one way, so we were like, 'yep, we can afford that'. IUI, if we get to that point, then yes, we can afford that - but IVF privately, no, we thought that would probably be a stretch to do month-on-month," she explained.

"We're very fortunate, but we do prioritise [pregnancy] - there was no other option."

Fertility patients Taryn Ukass (L) and Rachel Moana.
Fertility patients Taryn Ukass (L) and Rachel Moana. Photo credit: The AM Show

The couple travel back-and-forth between their home in Whangarei and Fertility Associates in Auckland for their appointments, another added cost. Moana is still yet to conceive.

"The mental struggle is very hard, and almost impossible to prepare for… in my mind I was ready to be a mum, but I wasn't ready for all the heartbreak month-on-month," she shared. 

"That's very hard to deal with, and then all the medications put additional stress on your body, which is not easy. You have to remember if you're having a rough week that it's still in your system, and have to rationalise it a bit."

IVF, despite being a popular option for those hoping to get pregnant, has no guarantees - the chance of success dropping dramatically with age. At 33, a person undergoing IVF has a 50 percent chance of successfully conceiving. By 40, that drops to 25 percent. At 45, the odds are incredibly slim at just 1 percent.

In the year to September 2019, there were more than 59,000 babies born in New Zealand. By September 2020, 1300 fewer babies had been born over the year.

A senior demographer with Statistics NZ said the steady decline is likely influenced by the rising cost and shortage of housing, the data showing the decline was greatest among New Zealanders aged under 35.