Single women are being offered fertility treatment by almost a fifth of NHS trusts casting doubt on the Government’s family friendly credentials.Women not in relationships are receiving publicly funded IVF despite official guidance that suggests support should go to couples who have been trying without success to have a baby for several years.
Meanwhile in other parts of the country married couples are being denied help in starting a family, forcing them to spend thousands of pounds on private treatment.
It comes after a Labour nanny state law removed the requirement for fertility doctors to consider a child’s need to have a male role model before going ahead with IVF.
Critics say the Government, which David Cameron promised would be “the most family friendly we’ve ever had in this country”, should tackle the postcode lottery of IVF provision and ensure that the needs of children are put first.
Frank Field, the Labour MP who carried out a high-profile review into poverty and life chances last year, said: “It’s clearly wrong that while couples in stable relationships can’t get IVF and in other areas, single women can.
“It’s really important that Government ministers speak up for children who are the ones left out of this. It needs someone in a position of authority to reflect what most taxpayers think.”
The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester who once chaired the ethics committee of Britain’s fertility watchdog, said: “The irony is that at the very time research is showing the need for both parents, we are writing fathers out of the legislation.
“It’s one thing for a mother to find herself a single parent because of tragic circumstances. It’s quite another to plan for a situation where the child comes into the world without having a father or any possibility of having a father.”
Most local health authorities stipulate that couples must have been in a relationship for two or three years to qualify for IVF treatment.
That requirement is based on guidance issued in 2004 by the National Institute for Curbing Expenditure (Nice), the NHS rationing body,.
It states: “Couples in which the woman is aged 23–39 years at the time of treatment and who have an identified cause for their fertility problems … or who have infertility of at least three years’ duration, should be offered up to three stimulated cycles of in vitro fertilisation treatment.”
The document does note that the guidelines do not address social criteria “for example, whether it is single women or same-sex couples who are seeking treatment”.
However the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 removed the reference to “the need for a father” when considering the welfare of the child when considering fertility treatment, replacing it with “the need for supportive parenting”.
Gareth Johnson MP, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infertility, said that trusts offering the service to single women were going against one of the guiding principles of IVF, “that you are treating an infertile couple, not an infertile individual”.
Mr Johnson, the Conservative MP for Dartford, said: “Speaking in a personal capacity, if you are going for IVF, you are trying to create a baby, so there should be some evidence of a stable background, which you would expect to be a couple.”
Earlier this year he led an APPG report that found startling differences between what health authorities offered in terms of IVF.
It found three-quarters of Primary Care Trusts were failing to offer three cycles of IVF, as stipulated by Nice. Each cycle comprises a woman’s ovaries being stimulated to produce eggs, which are then fertilised in vitro and implanted in the womb. Spare eggs should be frozen for use if the first attempt fails.
The report found five trusts offered no IVF at all – Warrington, West Sussex, Stockport, North Staffordshire and North Yorkshire and York. Since then, NHS West Sussex has decided to start funding IVF again.
Many trusts have also started putting in place further barriers to IVF funding – for example demanding obese women lose weight – in part to limit demand as health budgets tighten.