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Life

Same-sex couples are leading the fight for IVF equality in England

Straight couples are still offered priority over same-sex couples seeking fertility treatment. Now, same-sex couples are fighting back.

LGBTQI+ social media influencers Megan and Whitney Bacon-Evans hit the headlines earlier this month after taking their local NHS group to court, claiming they faced discrimination attempting to access IVF treatment. 

The couple, who have been together for 13 years, believe they have faced more hurdles than a heterosexual couple because of their same-sex relationship. And they are not alone. Their experience has brought greater attention to the need for fertility equality in England, and the same-sex couples leading the fight.

According to the NHS website, same-sex couples wanting to conceive have to go through at least 12 privately funded cycles of artificial insemination before being offered IVF through the NHS. It is a policy requirement for at least six of these cycles to be done using a method called intrauterine insemination. This process is a form of artificial insemination undertaken by a trained specialist, where sperm is placed directly into the uterus via a speculum. 

By contrast, most heterosexual couples are eligible for NHS-funded IVF from the outset of their journey, if each partner is able to meet certain criteria. The criteria accommodates married couples who are currently childless, for example, and heterosexual couples unable to fall pregnant naturally after two years of unprotected sex.

As a result of the NHS policy, lesbian couples wanting to fall pregnant face no choice but to spend thousands of pounds at private fertility clinics. One round of privately-funded IVF costs around £5,000, with an embryo transfer costing at least £1,500. On top of this, same-sex couples are required to cover the costs of sperm and fertility drugs.

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This issue is specifically linked to fertility clinics in England rather than the United Kingdom as a whole. In Scotland, all of those assigned female at birth, regardless of sexuality, are entitled to three attempts of IVF through the NHS. The circumstances are also similar for Wales and Northern Ireland, which both allow at least one fully-funded IVF attempt. 

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One couple speaking out for IVF equality is 34-year-old football referee Stacey Pearson and her partner, Danielle Beazer, 35. The pair fell pregnant with their daughter Willow, now three years old, after using IVF for the first time. It wasn’t until they began attempts for their second child that they became aware of the struggles same-sex couples face in order to qualify for NHS-funded IVF. 

Pearson and Beazer went through a costly failed transfer in 2019, and two miscarriages in the following years. During one transfer attempt, issues with thawing the sperm resulted in an unexpected £12,000 bill, which, on top of other costs, had to be paid in a matter of hours. 

“Unless you’ve been through IVF or know someone going through IVF, I don’t think you understand how much of an emotionally draining process it is. To have that extra financial burden on top of that just adds another layer of stress to it,” Pearson said.

The couple started an online petition earlier this year calling for equal NHS funding for same-sex couples using IVF in England. It has amassed nearly 54,000 signatures in total, and has a long-term aim of having the issue discussed in parliament.

Image: Freestocks.org

Pearson believes England’s IVF system is outdated. “The more you research into fertility, the more you realise it’s not just same-sex couples facing discrimination,” she said. “It’s especially difficult for us, but it’s also bad for single mums and women with partners who already have a child from a previous marriage. They would have to pay too.”

There have also been numerous cases in England of women being denied IVF if they are over the age of 40. “I just think it needs to be a fair playing field,” Pearson said. “There’s lots of flaws in the whole system, so I think there needs to be a complete review of how the funding is distributed.”

In 2019, then-health secretary Matt Hancock announced plans to conduct a review into the fertility process for same-sex couples, stating that “sexual orientation should not be a factor in access to IVF”. Despite being told to expect an update by the end of the year, Pearson and Beazer have still not been informed of any progress made since 2019.

In July, Conservative MP Helen Whately stated that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) had begun scoping a review of the current guidelines for same-sex fertility treatment.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told The Big Issue: “We are clear there should be equal access across England, and that Clinical Commissioning Groups should commission fertility services in line with NICE fertility guidelines. These set out that same sex couples are entitled to NHS IVF services if they have demonstrated their clinical infertility.”

Meanwhile, Pearson and Beazer’s petition has caught the attention of Daniel ShenSmith, a barrister from Staffordshire. ShenSmith is co-founder of a law firm and often creates videos offering legal explainers to his 45,000 subscribers on YouTube

In a video response to the couple’s petition, ShenSmith suggested that England’s IVF policy for same-sex couples could be breaking the 2010 Equality Act. The bill was put in place to protect those with certain personal characteristics from discrimination. This includes discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“It is unlawful to treat someone with a protected characteristic less favourably than others, either directly or indirectly. For example, putting rules or arrangements in place that apply to everyone, but that put a person with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage,” ShenSmith told The Big Issue.

“In my view, this clearly puts women in same-sex relationships at an unlawful and unfair disadvantage,” he said. “Frustration is justified in such situations where public bodies apply a set of rules that plainly discriminate against certain groups, and I hope the situation is corrected forthwith.”

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