Refusing fertility treatment on age grounds 'unjust'

IT IS fundamentally wrong and unjust to refuse fertility treatment to women in their late 30s or early 40s, Professor Robert Winston, a pioneer of in vitro fertilisation, said yesterday.

Professor Winston cited the case of Julie Seale, 37, who was refused NHS fertility treatment by Sheffield district health authority because she was over 35. The health authority had imposed the age limit because of limited resources.

'It is fundamentally wrong. It is fundamentally unjust and it doesn't make good economic sense,' Professor Winston, head of fertility studies at the Hammersmith Hospital, said at the Science Museum, London, which is mounting a new exhibition to publicise the causes of infertility.

Many women are delaying having children to continue working and are finding they have fertility problems as a result of wanting to start a family late, he said.

Despite making contributions to the country's economy, these working women are being discriminated against on the grounds of age. Professor Winston said that he would treat pre-menopausal women regardless of age, if they had a medical condition. He would not treat women after the menopause because the menopause is a biological not a medical condition.

'We are paying lip-service to equality in society, with men and women being equal in the workplace, but then saying women are too old to have fertility treatment,' he said. 'If we're going to have a society where men and women play an equal role in the workplace, for example, then we have to accept that women are going to develop a career. They will undoubtedly be contributing to the economy of the country.

'They will be producing something important for society, and for society then to turn round . . . and say we're not going to fund your treatment because you're now too old is fundamentally wrong.'

Professor Winston said many unemployed people are also being refused fertility treatment on the grounds of not being fit to have children. 'I see patients all the time who say they can't get treatment because they are unemployed. There are some fundamental wrongs about the judgements being made. There is no evidence at all that an unemployed person can't bring up a child.' he said.

It is 'nonsense' to say there are scarce resources to spend on fertility treatment. 'I think there are plenty of resources, but I believe those resources are being wasted.'

A prompt diagnosis of the underlying cause of a person's infertility would save money, Professor Winston said. 'There are about 600,000 couples in Britain suffering from infertility and their biggest problem is that far too often treatment is started before a diagnosis is made. This dangerous practice frequently leads to years of anguish and frustration, and wastes huge sums of NHS money.'

Professor Winston said it was 'ludicrous' to have an internal market for in vitro treatment, as there now is within the NHS. 'The truth is that every local hospital is thinking of setting up an IVF unit because it believes it might be commercially valuable and it might produce income. That's nonsense.'

The internal NHS market will not be to the benefit of infertile patients, Professor Winston added.