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Do IVF Pregnancies Raise Death Risk for Mothers?

British Doctors Say Risk Is Small but Real; U.S. Experts Aren’t So Sure
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

pregnant woman with doctor

Jan. 27, 2011 -- Maternal deaths resulting from in vitro fertilization (IVF) are relatively rare, but they do occur, British doctors warn in an editorial in the journal BMJ.

In the U.S. there were more than 140,000 IVF cycles in 2008, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART). During IVF, an egg and sperm are fertilized outside of the body in a laboratory and then implanted in the woman’s uterus. Fertility drugs are often used to stimulate a woman’s ovaries to produce eggs.

One leading U.S. fertility doctor says he is not aware of any deaths in the U.S. related to IVF pregnancies.

In the new report, Susan Bewley, an obstetrician at Kings College in London, and colleagues cite a study in the Netherlands that shows that the rate of pregnant women dying during IVF pregnancies is higher than during pregnancies in the general population. Specifically, there were 42 deaths per 100,000 IVF pregnancies, compared with six deaths seen among 100,000 pregnancies in the general population.

Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome can occur as a result of fertility drugs used to stimulate the development of eggs in a woman's ovaries. If the ovaries are overstimulated they can become enlarged and symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting can occur. In severe cases fluid may accumulate around the lungs or heart.  

The authors call for tracking of IVF-associated risks including ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome to better understand risks associated with IVF. “More stringent attention to stimulation regimens, preconceptual care, and pregnancy management is needed so that maternal death and severe morbidity do not worsen further,” they write.

U.S. Perspective

U.S. fertility doctors point out that the reasons women undergo IVF may account for the increased risk of death seen in the studies.

“It is very tenuous to say these were caused by IVF,” says Jamie Grifo, MD, PhD, program director of New York University Fertility Center in New York City.

Underlying health issues in women who turn to IVF to get pregnant may affect their risk profile, he says. These women may have had previous uterine surgery or are predisposed to high blood pressure or diabetes. Women who undergo IVF are also usually older than their counterparts who conceive without such assistance. Advancing maternal age is associated with riskier pregnancies.

“The population of people who need IVF may add special contributing factors to the risk of death during their pregnancy,” he says. Multiple pregnancies are more likely as a result of IVF, which also increases risks to moms and babies.

The new findings may not apply to the U.S. due to differences in obstetrical care, he says.

“We manage risks better [here], and do reductions more in multiple pregnancies,” Grifo says. The best way to protect the mother’s health and that of the baby regardless of how the pregnancy occurred is good prenatal care.

“If there are things about the pregnancy that increases their risk, women should be cared for by high-risk obstetricians who know how to manage complications and take them seriously,” he says.

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