Lesbian couples will finally be able to access NHS fertility services under the same terms as their straight counterparts – and it’s a huge day for those who’ve been campaigning for an end to the ‘gay tax’ on IVF.
“I literally just screamed for about minute,” says fertility campaigner Megan Bacon-Evans, who’s spent the last two years fighting for equal access to IVF alongside her wife, Whitney. “I couldn’t compute. I was like: ‘What are you saying? No, this can’t be true!’”
Megan was lying on a bed having fertility acupuncture when Whitney read out an email confirming the momentous news. Needless to say, it was difficult for her to remain still.
In 2020, the couple from Windsor launched a petition calling on the government to end the barriers facing LGBTQ+ couples wanting to start a family. They also launched a legal case against their local NHS clinical commissioning group on the grounds of discrimination. And in February, they were invited to speak in parliament about the inequalities that the LGBTQ+ community face in the fertility sector.
Until now, female same-sex couples have had to pay for up to six rounds of private artificial insemination before being eligible for NHS treatment, costing couples tens of thousands of pounds and pricing some out of starting a family. The restrictions are even more complex for male same-sex couples where a surrogate is needed. In comparison, straight couples just have to say they’ve been trying to conceive for two years.
But now, as part of its long-awaited Women’s Health Strategy, the government has pledged to remove the barriers facing lesbian couples. Female same-sex couples will no longer have to “prove” their fertility status via private treatment before accessing NHS support.
“When I heard it was being changed, I was literally so emotional, I had no words, I literally was crying,” Whitney tells HuffPost UK. “It was just so impactful to know that all the campaigning that we did, it led us to the decision that has been made, and that is going to positively affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people to come. It is just overwhelming. It’s a very joyous day.”
Whitney and Megan have already spent around £10,000 on private fertility treatment, which is ongoing. They’re unsure if they’ll now be able to switch to an NHS plan due to their ages (Megan is 35 and Whitney is 34, and some local areas still impose age restrictions on IVF).
Still, they say today remains a moment for celebration, which they’ll be sharing with the 71.8K followers they’ve gained on Instagram throughout their fertility journey.
“We started our campaign to help others and not help ourselves,” says Megan.
“Because we heard from our followers that they literally could not afford to create a family and we were not in the same situation as that. But equally, no one should be forced to have to get into debt, or pay thousands of pounds that they might have spent on a house, or anything else that’s important to them, that no one else has to do. So yeah, for us, it’s amazing, because we believe in equality.”
The couple’s Instagram, @whatwegandidnext, has already received a wave of comments and DMs from people thanking them for their hard work.
“I am crying in work!” one message says. “Thank you for doing this and allowing the future generations the opportunity to fairness and equal opportunities for fertility treatment.”
Their campaigning will change the lives of younger women like Charlotte Summers, 25, from Birmingham, who recently told HuffPost UK she was worried she’d never be able to afford to start a family with her fiancée, Aislinn.
“Im absolutely made up around the newest announcement that IVF will be made available to same-sex couples,” says Summers, who runs Unite UK, a platform supporting LGBTQ+ writers. “The initial worry around having children and the costs attached are reduced and I can’t wait to see all the happy families. In short, let’s start making babies!”
As well as the changes for lesbian couples, the government has also said it will improve the transparency on provision and access to fertility treatment in general, to address the current IVF postcode lottery.
Across the country, local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) currently impose their own restrictions of IVF access, including age limitations, BMI cut-offs, and restrictions if one partner has a child from a previous relationship. A handful of CCGs have cancelled all free fertility treatment, no matter the couple. From this month, CCGs will be replaced by integrated care boards (ICBs), but it’s not yet clear how funding for fertility services may change.
Professor Dr Geeta Nargund, medical director of Create Fertility and Co-founder of the Ginsburg Women’s Health Board has long campaigned for an end to the varying criteria.
While she welcomes the Women’s Health Strategy, Professor Nargund is limiting celebrations until we know more details and that these promises will be delivered.
“To fully bridge the gender health gap and to improve outcomes for women’s health, an intersectional approach is essential,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“I hope that the Department for Health and Social Care can engage with all stakeholders, including other relevant government departments, the NHS, the voluntary sector, the private sector and local communities to deliver real change. Women’s health is not just a women’s issue, and this first ever Women’s Health Strategy is the catalyst to achieving gender health equality.”
Marta Jansa Perez, BPAS Fertility’s Director of Embryology, also says she’s “absolutely delighted” the rules are changing for female same-sex couples, but asks what is being done to help single women.
“Unfortunately, single women are also affected by similar requirements, and it is unclear if the changes announced by the government today will also apply to this group of fertility patients,” she says.
“In the 21st century there can be no justification for NHS policies that exclude patients on the basis of their relationship status. We will be examining the policies in detail when published, and we will continue to campaign for fair and equal access for all fertility patients, including single women.”
Nevertheless, it’s a huge day for Megan and Whitney Bacon-Evans – and the members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies who’ve supported their campaigning.
“It means a lot for us in the fact that we are now seen as equal in the eyes of the law, and we’ll be treated as a family,” says Megan. “It’s going to completely change the future for so many people. That’s absolutely insane.”