This morning on The Wright Stuff, presenter Matthew Wright posed the question whether stepmums should be denied IVF treatment because they have (someone else's) children in their life. This isn't the first time I have heard of this. There have been occasions in the past when Primary Care Trusts (PCT) have denied fertility treatment to women whose husbands already had a child, albeit with another woman, or who have had children themselves in previous relationships. It's an example of bureaucratic policy making that doesn't take into account the human experience of the people it is meant to serve.
Susi Henson, a 33-year old woman has been denied IVF because her partner has a 20-year old son from a previous relationship who she has never even met. This seems like blind adherance to a rule that does not take into account her medical condition, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, that prevents her from conceiving. The Nottinghamshire County PCT has ignored the true facts surrounding this woman's childless status, in favour of a view that this is not a "childless couple." However, in no way could Susi Henson ever be considered to have had the opportunity to parent her partner's child, considering that he is only 13 years younger than she is and lives in Wales.
Some of the points made by Wright and his guests, including Anne Diamond, concerned the limited NHS budget, whether everyone has a right to have children, whether everyone who needs IVF should be able to access it free and how many cycles of IVF should be alotted per patient. There will always be controversy, as long as individual PCTs can use their own criteria for eligibility. For instance, Wright mentioned that about one-third of PCTs will allow patients who are smokers to access IVF, even though smoking is known to inhibit conception, raise the chances of miscarriage and impact upon the health of the foetus during pregnancy and after birth. It is, perhaps, the uneven and confusing allocation of fertility treatment that galls people the most.
A caller to the programme, Katie, was also denied IVF which she needed due to blocked fallopian tubes because her partner had adult children. She eventually managed to save the money for private treatment and is now the mother of a 5-month old baby, but considers the financial hardship it caused to be unfair. Susi Henson phoned in to the show to say that she has received a lot of public support, as well as a phone call from one of the policy-makers who has promised to review her case and the PCT's policies on IVF treatment. However, the policies are only reviewed in April each year. Matthew Wright emphasized the inadequacy of this offer, pointing out that the delay of nearly a year could negatively impact upon Henson's chance of conceiving, as age is an essential aspect of a woman's fertility.
Even if a woman is the stepmother to her partner's young children, and partially responsible for their upbringing, should she be denied the ability to have her own children? By definition, those children have, or had, a mother already. Step-parenting can be difficult and is not always loving or even cooperative, depending upon the degree of amicability between the estranged parents of the children involved, custodial arrangements and other emotional factors. While step-parenting may fulfil some women's needs, others will never see it as an adequate replacement for the experience of giving birth to, raising and loving her own children. Further, it is entirely natural for a couple to want to create a family of their own.
If a woman meets all other criteria for fertility treatment on the NHS, and it is deemed medically necessary in order for her to conceive, it seems cruel and unjust to deny her that chance. Most women have no inkling of their infertility until they have begun trying to conceive, therefore, they will not had the chance to take it into account when agreeing to marry someone who already has children from a previous relationship. Ironically, they may have had an easier time accessing NHS treatment is they were single, as many PCT's will allow IVF to single women. This is symbolic of the incoherence and uneven-handedness of the present policies existing across the UK. If we are to ensure a fair allocation of NHS funds for fertility treatment, wouldn't it be better to look at the people concerned and make more individual decisions? Matthew Wright thinks an IVF ombudsman could work. I like the idea of individual, people-centred decision making, but I imagine I can already hear cries of alarm about the cost involved in that: how many IVF procedures could have been paid for with the salary of the ombudsmen?