Availability of Free IVF in the UK

Infertility presents challenges to women and their partners when having a child is a life goal they truly want to achieve. Not having the ability to get pregnant through conventional methods causes a great deal of emotional turmoil, no matter the root cause of infertility. In recent years, many women have embraced in vitro fertilisation, or IVF, to increase their chances of having a child.

Through the process of IVF, women go through several steps including the removal of the egg from the ovaries, fertilisation of that egg or eggs in a lab, and then implantation of the egg back into the womb. Since IVF has been offered in the UK as a viable solution to infertility among some adult women, more than a quarter million babies have been born thanks to the treatment in the UK alone. Throughout the world, IVF is responsible for more than 5 million births.

The fertility treatment has significantly increased in popularity, with more than 52,200 women receiving over 67,700 cycles of IVF in 2013. The success rate has grown to more than 14%, giving more women and their partners the ability to have children. Despite the growing success of in vitro fertilisation treatment since its debut in 1991, the NHS through local clinical commissioning groups has opted to restrict rather than expand access to treatment based on the need to save costs.

Recent Changes and NICE Guidance

The leading charity responsible for monitoring the provision of IVF treatment as a remedy for women experiencing infertility recently stated that several areas in England are proposing or actively cutting back on the availability of treatment in an effort to reduce costs. In each area, the nearest clinical commissioning group, or CCG, takes up the responsibility of determining what treatment, if any, is available to women based on the demand of the public and the budget limitations experienced by the NHS and its available funding each year. In 13 areas around England, in vitro fertilisation as a free service to women has been restricted or halted in 2017 alone, with eight other localities taking similar steps in the upcoming year.

Although the provision for IVF has been in flux for several years, many are concerned that the changes to access to free fertility treatment with the help of IVF cycles leave many women without options for having a child. While there is a need to balance the provision of IVF treatment with other healthcare services needed by the public at large, restricting treatment options will be devastating to women already under a great deal of emotional and physical distress. The decisions of local CCGs to limit who is able to receive IVF at no cost goes against the guidance of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, creating an environment where only families who have significant financial means are able to receive treatment.

Under the NICE guidance, women in the UK who are under the age of 40 should have the opportunity to go through three full cycles of in vitro fertilisation if they have not had success in getting pregnant over the past two years. The changes to access proposed by several CCGs in England have included restriction of IVF for those over age 35, and even then, only one cycle of treatment would be available. While this has the potential to reduce costs, by essentially cutting the number of IVF recipients by nearly half, women outside these confines are left with two options: pay for treatment at a private facility, to the tune of £5,000 or more, or simply go without.

Under the current framework, women seeking assistance in conceiving a child through in vitro fertilisation may be eligible for free treatment through the NHS, based on their postcode. Each area has its own standards for how many cycles of IVF are offered and the specific criteria that must be met in order to qualify for free treatment. Women who are unsure if they are eligible for IVF treatment can visit Fertility Network UK to see the latest funding and qualification requirements in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, based on their specific location.

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