James Sunderland speaks in a debate ahead of Baby Loss Awareness Week

James Sunderland shares his personal thoughts in relation to baby loss and IVF and calls for more investment in specialist neonatal care, paediatric units, midwives and consultants. He also urges better support from employers for both parents and families facing bereavement, the agony of miscarriage and the tough IVF journey.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

I will admit to being in two minds about speaking in this important debate. As a biological male, I cannot, of course, get pregnant. What do I know, really? Can I feel it? Do I have a right to be here? Do my experiences carry any legitimacy against the amazing stories that we have heard today? Of course the answer is yes, but there is a conflict. This is difficult territory for all of us, but not least for men. We need to destigmatise this conundrum. The fact that something is difficult does not mean that we should not do it or talk about it, so I really hope that I hold it together for the next five minutes or so.

For me, baby loss is about many things. It is about bereavement at the loss of any child, big or small. It is about the devastation that is left behind. It is about the hopes that are dashed, and the misery. It is about love. It is about the agony of miscarriage, however that child is conceived. It is about those trying for children—those who desperately want children. And it is about those going through in vitro fertilisation or intrauterine insemination, with the physical and emotional nightmare that that brings; people mortgage their house and their hopes, take out loans and bankrupt themselves, against the mirage of science. It is great when it works, but the agony of infertility is very real for so many people. This debate is also about those who might never have children and those who do not have children.

Back in April 2018, my young niece succumbed to a very serious illness. It was not long before her second birthday, and she would have been five today. I have not spoken about that publicly, and I do not really want to do so now, but I can tell the House that bereavement at the loss of a child is devastating, and I was not the parent. Grief works in so many ways; it is so difficult. Aside from the inherent loss of a beautiful and innocent child, it is about what is left behind. It is about birthdays, Christmases, the friends and boyfriends that never materialise, grandchildren and children, and it is also about the parents who grieve—and it lasts forever. Politically, this is actually very easy to deal with: we need to throw the kitchen sink at it. I note that the Minister is in her place. Money should be no object when it comes to this kind of thing.

My niece died just across the river in the fantastic Evelina Hospital. It is a brilliant facility, and I commend the staff who work there. What an amazing machine. It is so state of the art that it looks like a spaceship, and the people are just brilliant. I thank them and all the staff across the country doing that very difficult job. However, we must invest in more of these facilities. We have to give all our children the best possible care. It is only money, at the end of the day. There can be no greater prize than bringing a child into the world, or saving a life, or prolonging life, so let us give all our children the best possible chance.

We need to talk about this issue, as we are now, however difficult that might be. Of course, baby loss is also about losing a baby through miscarriage. These are not just embryos; they are people. They are lives. They are the embodiment of hopes and dreams for so many people. They are actually little versions of ourselves. Yes, nature can have a way of taking its own decisions, and that is fine, but miscarriage is devastating for all parents, grandparents, families and so many people who have direct involvement in it. I can only imagine the horror. My heart goes out in particular to women who have to give birth to a baby that once had a heartbeat. I cannot imagine how difficult that must be. We need to empathise and sympathise and just be there, to love and to feel for them.

For women who cannot get pregnant and who do not get pregnant, it is about the pain, the loss, the endless cycle of hope each month, and the devastation as her period starts all over again. This is tricky, tricky stuff. It is also about the sister who churns out children like rounds from a machine gun with complete impunity—with no effort at all. Perhaps even worse, it is about the sanctimonious friend or sister-in-law who can do the same. It is about the doubt and the worry. It is about the compounded misery, month on month. Again, our hearts must go out to the people who are so badly affected. It is about the hours crouched over toilets in cubicles, with negative pregnancy tests, bereft at yet again coming on. The list goes on, and it is real and it is happening today in this country to so many of us.

It is also about the agony of putting on a brave face afterwards. It is about going back into the world—going back into the office—as if nothing has happened. It is tough stuff. Then there are the tests, the invasion, the prodding, the poking and the examinations for those who want to find out why they cannot conceive—being on a slab, feeling like a total failure.

And what about men? Well, here we go. I was that man in the day, doing unnatural things in cubicles in clinics across London. I was that man carrying precious cargo on the tube in odd-shaped containers. I could deal with the alcohol bans for three months at a time, although that was difficult, but the loss of caffeine was really tough.

Paul Bristow (Peterborough) (Con)

I commend my hon. Friend for having the courage to tell his story. I, too, have been through the experience of IVF. Does he agree that one of the worst things about going through that battle of fertility is people innocently asking, “When are you and your partner going to start a family? When are you going to have children? You don’t want to leave it too late.” A risk in all this is the lack of awareness that infertility is very common.

James Sunderland 

I thank my good friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. You often do not want to say anything, but you feel as though you should. You ask why you have not got children, and why others are having children and you are not. There is the expectation of one’s grandparents. It is a difficult business.

On one occasion, I was eating a piece of white toast in the kitchen and this mad, deranged woman grabbed it from me and said, “Don’t.” On another occasion, I was on exercises with my regiment, with the whole unit on parade—I was there with the brigadier on a big visit—and my phone rang. It was my wife, and she said, “Come home, honey; I’m ovulating.” Those words would put the fear of God into any man. But the worst thing of all is the Brazil nuts, chopped up with breakfast—absolutely horrible things. To this day, I have post-traumatic stress disorder from that.

Lia Nici (Great Grimsby) (Con)

I commend my hon. Friend for his absolute and utter honesty. Having gone through these kinds of experiences, I know the desperation of wanting to have children and then the absolute terror, as a women and a partner, when you are going through pregnancy, about whether you are going to be able to hear a heartbeat, feel that movement and know that everything is all right. Does he agree that the best thing we can do is to talk about this issue openly—I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for bringing it to the House—because that is the way we will all get through it together?

James Sunderland 

I thank my good friend from Grimsby. I could not agree more. There is not much I can really add to that; she is absolutely right. From personal experience, seeing the heartbeat on the screen is worth all the effort and I would commend everyone just to keep going because dreams do come true.

Very briefly, as time is marching on, for couples going through IVF, please have respect for what they are doing. They are mortgaging themselves. It is about the money. It is about the anxiety—endless cycles in many cases. It is also about the heavy drugs, the mood swings, the overestimation of the ovaries and the injections in the stomach. It is pretty grim. So feel. Please support and be there for your friends and family who are going through it. There is devastation when it goes wrong and it does go wrong. Spare a thought for the heartache, for the hopes, the preparations, the fears and the tests. It rests, ultimately, on a drop of urine. It is absolutely brutal.

Having debated the horrible reality of baby loss today, what can we do? I am going to rattle through this very quickly. We need to support our loved ones, as I have said. As men or partners, we need to hug, to hold, to reassure and to listen.

Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge) (Con)

I thank all hon. Members for their courageous speeches. The point my hon. Friend is raising, and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) is raising, is that this does not just affect women. We are not just the ones who go through the grief, bereavement and pain. Men do too and we need to talk more about that. Both men and women suffer bereavement through baby loss.

James Sunderland 

Absolutely—I thank my hon. Friend. This is about two people. It takes two to tango. People go through this collectively as a couple, but also individually. We should recognise the fact that it is difficult for both parties, whoever they might be.

As I said earlier, we need to invest in hospitals an awful lot more: in better baby units, better midwives and consultants who read their notes. We need to make sure that we take some risks politically on this issue and spend more money. As I said, it is only money. Employers, please get a grip. If you have a woman in your employ going through IVF, please just empathise and sympathise. Give her some space.

Before I finish, I want to stick my neck out on a couple of very personal issues—please forgive me. For those who want to have children, go for it is my advice. Stay strong and keep going. My humble advice is not to leave it too late: you cannot turn the clock back and careers are, ultimately, not that important. For those considering IVF, just go for it. It does work. It is successful and it is getting better all the time. For those who might need extra support, I commend the organisation Foresight, otherwise known as the Association for the Promotion of Preconceptual Care, which is absolutely fantastic. Finally, for those for whom it does not work and suffer the loss of never conceiving, we can never do enough for you. In this place, as politicians, we will keep focusing on this very important issue. Please keep lobbying us, too. These are life and death issues that are ultimately more important than anything else.

Lastly, and most importantly of all, please do spare a thought for those poor men eating Brazil nuts for breakfast.