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Published on June 17th, 2014 | by Jon Regnart
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Single Women and IVF: Should the NHS Provide It?

IVF treatment for single women remains very low in the UK. In April the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority reported that in 2012, 632 single women applied to have the procedure. After I contemplated the figure, it raised two important questions, firstly, why is the number so low?

An obvious answer is that many heterosexual women quite like men and would like to settle down with one in the future. The majority of these women eventually find a suitable man and have children so the amount of single woman wanting children is small. However in the UK an increasing number of younger people are choosing to live alone. Independent and aspirational women are a big part of this trend. So if single women are intently focusing on building a career, finding a suitable partner may occur later in life. Even if it is a priority, the relationship becomes harder to maintain. IVF

Furthermore as Rebecca Holman argues in her article, a single woman’s choice when she gets to 30 can be limited. Interestingly, an option Holman seriously considers is having IVF and bypassing forming a relationship. This isn’t because she despises men. Instead it’s because she might not be able to conform to the societal norm of ‘finding the right man’ by her mid-thirties.

To me, it seems a shame that some single women feel pressured into relationships because they’re running out of time. Nature has dealt humans a cruel hand but maybe science can reshuffle the deck. I believe IVF presents women with a real choice of when to have children. In fact IVF empowers women by increasing the window of opportunity to have kids. As a result this reduces the societal and biological pressure. Dare I say it may even lead to more logical decisions about their future partner.

However IVF is also low amongst single women because it’s too expensive. According to the Resolution Foundation, around three million women are paid below the living wage (62% of all employees paid below the living wage). Given that IVF has a 32.2% success rate for women under 35, with one cycle of IVF treatment costing £5000 at a private clinic, the odds are that a single woman under 35 will spend £15000 before she becomes pregnant. Potentially women over that age could spend considerably more as the success rates decline.

In addition, these rough figures also exclude consultation fees, tests and any other hidden costs that a private clinic may wish to charge single women. Therefore going privately for IVF is not a financially viable option for most single women.

Should the NHS Subsidise This?

This neatly leads on to my second and more controversial question: should IVF and other fertility treatments be provided by the NHS? In the UK today, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (2008) replaced the clause ‘a need for a father’ with ‘the need for supportive parenting’. Therefore it has been legally possible for single women to apply for IVF treatment on the NHS. Yet in practice only one in five NHS clinics offers the service so it becomes a postcode lottery.

I understand there are many possible scenarios which would create grey areas and a blanket service should not be made available to all single women. Nevertheless I’m focusing on the basic principle where in some circumstances it should be allowed. Perhaps a woman whose husband has died in a war and as a precaution stored his sperm in case he didn’t come back. Maybe even a single, infertile woman who is unable to pay £15000 but could reasonably support a child.

Loose Change

The biggest complaint about NHS funding IVF is a matter of priority and principle. We currently have an ageing population which we’re failing to care for, rising financial costs and a crisis in GP surgeries. Whilst a single woman who wants children but is infertile is tragic, shouldn’t we prioritise the above issues? The founding principle of the NHS has been about stopping and preventing illness. Being infertile isn’t life threatening and if you can’t afford fertility treatment privately you should try and adopt. I agree choosing to adopt is a noble decision and a worthwhile route to go down for many single women. However the procedure is slow and may be too slow for a woman conscious of her body clock.

Ultimately this issue boils down to the role the NHS plays in our lives and what we constitute as a health concern. The NHS already carries out numerous tests for infertility so it does provide some assistance for women. However whilst infertility isn’t life threatening, it strongly impacts women psychologically. More importantly, being infertile is not their fault. Other psychological illnesses and learning differences are rightly subsidised by the welfare system. Just because hip replacements require more money and attention doesn’t mean we should completely neglect other issues.

The welfare system was put in place to protect people who through no fault of their own couldn’t enjoy life’s pleasures. I agree having a child isn’t a “right”; it’s a responsibility that needs careful deliberation. But if you start analysing the philosophy of pregnancy then you could argue there’s an element of selfishness in every pregnancy.

I understand the NHS is strapped for cash and realistically this probably isn’t a financially viable option. But in principle, I think IVF should be offered to single, infertile women who meet a certain criteria. In regards to fertile single women, it’s a tough call. But perhaps in the short term, more should be done to make the private sector cheaper for single women.


Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Jon graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in International Relations and currently works in a college in Birmingham. He is mainly interested in European issues, critical security studies and UK politics. He supports Birmingham City, idolises Alessandro Nesta and takes a long time to play snooker shots.

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