IVF treatment is, for many thousands of women and couples who require help to have children, often seen as a beacon of hope. Recent figures show that in 2020, over 59,000 fresh and frozen IVF cycles took place at UK fertility clinics. Of these, 2,305 cycles (4 per cent of all cycles) were for patients who had a female partner. IVF and other forms of fertility treatment offer men and women of all sexual orientations the chance to start their own family, and so I believe is vital for improving the equality and diversity of our society. However, if we are to realise the full potential of this treatment, we must improve IVF access for all couples, not least those in same-sex relationships, who shockingly can face added barriers when it comes to funding options.
Fertility treatment is an expensive process and NHS funding provisions for IVF varies across different areas of the country. However, the provisions for same-sex couples are even more stringent, who find themselves having to jump through significantly more hoops to be eligible for funding than their heterosexual counterparts. In some areas, same-sex couples are required to undergo up to 12 cycles of self-funded artificial insemination, before they can be considered for NHS funded IVF treatment. This is a clear contrast with the criteria for heterosexual couples to receive funding, which is simply to prove that they have been trying to conceive naturally for two years.
The National Institute for Care and Health Excellence (NICE) issued guidelines in 2013 that all women up to the age of 40, regardless of sexual orientation and relationship status, should be entitled to three full cycles of publicly funded IVF treatment. This reduces to one cycle for those aged 40-42. However, the lack of a national IVF tariff means that women and couples often find themselves ineligible for treatment due to the “NHS postcode lottery” where different Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) operate under different fertility policies. In fact, only 12 per cent of CCGs offer the three full recommended cycles and some do not offer any at all, or only when patients meet strict criteria. For same-sex couples who have already paid a significant sum to even reach this point, the fact they could then have their request for funding eventually denied is simply unacceptable.
This issue is, rightly, now coming to the public attention, with couples such as Whitney and Megan Bacon-Evans launching legal action against the NHS after being forced to pay thousands to prove their inability to conceive naturally. They are fighting against a system that places unfair barriers on the LBGTQ+ community who are only asking for equal access to fertility treatments. What’s more, with most private fertility treatments costing several thousands of pounds, sadly many same-sex couples can find themselves priced out of being able to start a family.
This is why I founded abc ivf, the UK’s lowest cost clinic. abc offers fertility treatment at up to 50 per cent the cost of other clinics, by cutting out unnecessary tests and unproven add-ons – meaning that, for those couples who cannot access NHS-funded treatment to start their family, there are affordable options out there.
One couple in our care who faced hurdles on their journey to become parents was Katherine and her partner, who had travelled to Norway to access more affordable treatment. Having sadly experienced two rounds of failed treatment, the couple found travelling abroad for treatment only added to their stress, so returned to look at their options in the UK. They then faced further disappointment when their final round of a three cycle IUI (Intra-Uterine Insemination) package with another UK clinic had to be abandoned due to Katherine’s ovaries becoming overstimulated.
Beautiful baby boy
After speaking to friends who had been through a similar experience, Katherine and her partner started treatment with abc ivf, where they were able to afford a cycle of IVF treatment. Due to the lower-drug approach used at abc, the couple did not experience overstimulation again and had a successful cycle, resulting in their beautiful baby boy being born in December 2021.
As such, a first port of call for same-sex couples might be to look into Natural IUI and mild IVF treatments as a far cheaper and safer option where lower doses of stimulating drugs are used. This option may not be offered by all clinics, although the financial and health benefits from these lower drug alternatives are something that couples should be aware of as they start their fertility journeys.
Heterosexual couples do not have to face the same financial burden as same-sex couples to prove they need access to IVF treatment; this must be changed if we are to level the playing field. The current discrepancy in funding for different family types is unfair and unjust. One of the central and founding principles of the NHS is to provide equal and fair access to healthcare – why should IVF for same-sex couples be treated as an exception to this rule? Equality should be a fundamental principle upheld not just in our NHS but in our society as a whole, and IVF access must be improved for same-sex couples, if we are to realise this.