IVF age limit of 35 to be imposed

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AN AGE limit as low as 35 is expected to be imposed by the Government on women seeking in-vitro fertilisation on the NHS as part of a national strategy for securing uniform access to the treatment.

The Government is being urged to adopt strict guidelines which will cover age, whether the couple seeking a baby by IVF already have a child, the number of attempts they will be allowed, and health factors such as whether the woman smokes or is overweight.

The controversial plan comes as part of a pledge from ministers to end the "postcode lottery" system that currently operates, under which most couples are denied IVF on the NHS by their health authorities because of the expense. Treatment typically cost between pounds 800 and pounds 2,500 with the total NHS bill at about pounds 48m a year.

Instead, the Government will require health authorities to deliver IVF on the NHS but with the contentious catch that it will only be available to those who are most likely to benefit.

In a written Commons answer before the summer recess, John Hutton, the health minister, said the Government planned to "move towards fairer access to NHS infertility services where those most able to benefit from such treatment receive it".

Ministers are awaiting the delivery of a report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists before announcing the new guidelines later this year. But senior medical sources involved in the review said that they will advise the Government that the success of IVF falls sharply as a woman approaches 40. Another recommendation will be to limit the number of embryo implants to two.

Some health authorities refuse to fund IVF on the NHS for women over 35; others set the limit at 37. A cut off below 40 would come as a severe blow to many older women.

The plans were attacked last night by Lord Winston, the Labour peer and a world-renowned expert on fertility treatment. He accused ministers of hiding behind the Royal College report. "The Government has to recognise when we were in Opposition we invented the term `postcode lottery' to attack the Tories. It is about time that health ministers recognised they have to deliver on what they regarded as a scandal," he said.

"There has been continuing prevarication since we came into power. We claimed we were interested in protecting the family and family values. Infertility is a cruel condition which causes a great deal of pain. It would be possible to deliver this in a much more satisfactory way but we need more resources. It is all about funding. It is nothing to do with clinical guidelines."

Vernon Coaker, the Labour MP for Gedling, who has championed the cause of fairer access to IVF in the health service, said: "What people want is some sense of fairness across the country. The postcode lottery is unfair. There is a great sense of hope that the Government will succeed in levelling out this geographical variations.

"We need a proper debate at the minimum standards we want. People would be prepared to accept limits if they felt it was fair. How you draw the line, and quite where you draw the line, I would not know, but the unacceptable variations across the country need sorting out."

A special committee of the Royal College, chaired by Professor Alan Templeton, found that IVF is effective. It said infertility affects one in seven couples in the UK with many of them more likely than ever to seek IVF treatment. Typically, a district health authority may see about 230 new consultant referrals each year.