Funded fertility treatment for lesbian couples near impossible in Northern Ireland

A lesbian couple who cannot get free fertility treatment claim they are being indirectly discriminated against because of their sexuality.

The women were initially told by health professionals they could be treated by the National Health Service (NHS). But they were "devastated" when that changed.

The Department of Health said same-sex couples had "the same eligibility to publicly funded specialist infertility treatment as other couples". According to criteria set out by the department, a couple has to be trying to conceive for three years unsuccessfully or have a medical condition before they are entitled to one free cycle of fertility treatment from the health service. The same criteria applies to heterosexual couples.

But the women argue that it is impossible for them to meet the criteria used by the regional fertility centre in Northern Ireland. They said the criteria were drawn up with only a man and woman in mind.

The rules need to change as has happened in Scotland, the women said, to accommodate same-sex couples. The couple told the BBC that they cannot afford private treatment. They had approached their GPs and Belfast's regional fertility clinic.

"Initially we were jumping around the room, we were so excited that we were going to be put on the waiting list," one of the women, who did not want to be named, said.

Conflicting

"When we did go to the hospital [we were] told it was only available for heterosexuals and they couldn't fund us. "We felt they were saying: 'No, you are lesbians, there was no equality, we won't help you.'"

The women said they approached the BBC because of the conflicting information they received from GPs and other health professionals. They are also accusing the Department of Health of indirect discrimination.

'Committed'

"We shouldn't be treated any differently," one of the women said. "It is offered on the NHS to people who are infertile - in a way, we are infertile as we can't have a baby in the way nature intended. "That is through no fault of our own."

The woman's partner said they are committed to each other and are in a stable relationship. "We love each other, we want to build a life together and should not be discriminated against," she said.

Changing

The number of same-sex couples attempting to get pregnant in Northern Ireland is growing. In 2013, about 60 couples sought fertility treatment privately. In the past 18 months that figure has jumped to more than 200. Agenda

Tracey McDowell of Here NI, an independent support group for gay and bisexual women, said achieving reproductive rights for same-sex couples is the next stage in their fight for equality. "It is yet another barrier that we have to face and try and overcome," Ms McDowell said.

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