Sometimes, a few well articulated words can make you question your own settled, sometimes congealed views. It happened to me on Thursday morning, while I was listening dozily to the Today Programme on BBC Radio4. One report was on IVF. Apparently, in some areas of England, health care trusts had surreptitiously withdrawn this service because of budgetary pressures. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence ( Nice) backs these treatments and has extended the age limit for women entitled to get three free IVF cycles. Yet now, if you live in some parts of England, you have to go private, go abroad, or remain childless. Claire Thomas, a young mum interviewed on the programme, was refused IVF because her husband already had two children from a previous marriage. They had to spend over four thousand pounds, go to the Czech Republic to have the baby they craved. Until this broadcast, I, a mother of two, was either turned off by IVF sob stories or simply not that bothered. But Claire’s lucid testimony shook up my complacency, compelled me to look into the subject . Call it an epiphany.
According to Sarah Norcross, co-chair of the Fertility Fairness campaign group, the number of people getting NHS infertility treatment is at its lowest since 2004. Some area clinical commission groups are withdrawing access because, says, Norcross, it is a soft option. I think she is right. It’s easier than, say, denying drugs to cancer patients or closing down facilities for premature babies. These matters are as much about emotion as cost and priorities. Many Britons believe IVF is a luxury, a lifestyle choice for those who must have it all. I used to think that too. I wrote, as if I knew it all, that having kids was not a right but a privilege, that couples should adopt or adapt to their circumstances.
Claire described how isolated she felt, the depression she fell into. How would I have coped if I had been unable to have children naturally? It would have been unbearable. Yet over the years, I became cruelly indifferent to women and men who longed to be parents and had to seek medical interventions to get there. Maybe some of this was the influence of earlier manifestations of feminism. In the late seventies, feminist theorists were highly critical of marriage, penetrative sex, female procreation and the duties of motherhood. I wore loose dungarees to hide my pregnancy from the radical sisters in my feminist group, then discreetly left. Those were the bad old days.
Feminism is worthless if it only engages with politics, power, inequality and economic parity. Biological needs and human desires must be part of the struggle too. Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon successfully challenge the way childless women used to be stereotyped in our society- pitiable and not quite female. However, women desperate to have kids who then opt for medical interventions can still be seen as pathetic and spoilt even. Few know or care about the arduous processes, the toll on the body, the disappointments when the treatments fail. Campaigners try their best, but this cause still does not stir most Britons. It should. Women now have to work and so wait longer than their mums did to start families. As you get older, it becomes harder to conceive or carry a baby.
Childbearing is a fundamental human right. I would go further: spending on IVF makes more sense than spending good money on drugs for people who only have months to live or indeed keeping the very old and sick ticking over, waiting for death. Decision makers in the NHS have to make tough judgements. But they must act fairly too. Cutting free IVF provision means those on modest incomes can never have the child they yearn for. They can in Scotland. Whatever happened to universal healthcare based on need and not ability to pay?
Edited Version I newspaper 23/9/2016