Single women across a whole NHS region are being denied NHS fertility treatment because they do not have a partner, it has been revealed.
NHS South East London, a partnership of six clinical commissioning groups and five hospital trusts, no longer offers IVF to single women, claiming they place a “burden on society”.
The policy, which has been slammed as “daft and outdated”, directly contradicts guidelines set out by The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which say women under 40 should be offered three cycles of NHS IVF if they have not conceived naturally after two years of trying.
The NICE guidelines make no reference to relationship status. However, NHS South East London requires women to be in a “stable relationship” before undergoing treatment, according to The Sunday Times.
A policy document seen by the paper reportedly states: “Single mothers are generally poorer; they are likely to have greater support needs compared to two-parent couples, thereby placing a greater burden on society in general. Aristotle’s principle of equality says treat equals equally, so a couple compared to a couple is equal. A woman or man compared to a couple is not equal, and by attempting to think of them as such has no ground or support.”
The document is said to conclude: “A sole woman is unable to bring out the best outcomes for the child.”
NHS South East London includes the clinical commissioning groups Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark.
Genevieve Roberts, who has written about her experience of becoming a single mother via a sperm donor, thinks the NHS policy is “daft and outdated”.
“Currently, the vast majority of solo mums fund their own IVF,” she tweeted. “Of hundreds of solo mums I’ve spoken to, I only know of one who had NHS treatment, and she’d had cancer.”
The news comes despite the fact that the number of single women deciding to become mothers with the help of a donor sperm is increasing. The number of IVF cycles completed by single women increased by 4% between 2016-2017, according to the latest data available from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates fertility treatment in the UK.
“Research suggests it is the lack of a male partner prepared to commit to parenthood that is the key driver for women choosing to become single mothers,” Sarah Norcross, director of fertility campaign group PET said in May.
“These are not women focused solely on their career and they are not necessarily women who have failed to find the man they want to have children with – it is the absence of a man ready to become a dad that has led to this reproductive choice,” she told HuffPost UK.
The latest news from South East London reflects a trend of disinvestment in NHS fertility services across the country. Five CCGs – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Croydon, Basildon and Brentwood, North East Essex and Mid Essex – have completely ceased to offer IVF for free, citing financial pressures.
Data collected since 2013 by the campaign group Fertility Fairness also shows the vast majority of CCGs across the country (88%) do not currently offer three NHS-funded IVF cycles for women under 40 – directly contradicting the NICE guidelines.
In the past two and half years, one in five CCGs (21%) have slashed services by cutting the number of IVF cycles they offer, decommissioning services, or introducing prohibitive access criteria (such as relationship status or the prospective father being over a certain weight).
Almost three-quarters (70%) of CCGs offer just one cycle; 15% provide two IVF cycles and just 12% provide the recommended three IVF cycles, according to the data.
The latest policy from NHS South East London cites a 2011 internal document, which claims “denial of fertility treatment has a limited impact on a woman’s life satisfaction”, according to the Sunday Times.
Amber Izzo, 24, was prescribed anti-depressants around Christmas time when she “had hit an all time low”, due to fertility services being cut in Cambridgeshire.
“I’d wake up every day and just not want to be here. It impacted my marriage, I was angry at the world, I cut myself off from a social life and I just constantly felt like life wasn’t worth it,” she told HuffPost. “A life without children isn’t something I’m prepared to accept and I felt so guilty that my husband, his family, my family, we’re all having to go through this because of my diagnosis.”
In a statement, the South East London Commissioning Alliance said: “Infertility is a condition that requires investigation, management and treatment in accordance with national guidance.
“As part of the provision of prevention, treatment and care, south east London commissioners are committed to ensuring that access to NHS fertility services is provided fairly and consistently within the limited resources we have available.”
They said the policy would be reviewed and updated on a “regular basis”.