Women over 34 are being automatically refused IVF treatment on the NHS in 12 areas of England, the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme has found.
Guidelines say IVF should be offered to women until age 42, but new figures show around 80% of areas are failing to do this.
Campaign group Fertility Fairness said England’s Clinical Commission Groups (CCGs) are rationing access to NHS fertility services by setting their own access criteria, including male body mass index (BMI) and age.
But Fertility Fairness said this “penalises women who take longer to find a partner”.
And couples seeking fertility treatment are being denied access for other reasons too.
Fertility Fairness said its 2018 audit of England’s 195 CCGs reveals that more than a quarter (27%) now use a man’s BMI to determine whether a couple can be referred for IVF on the NHS.
While fourteen CCGs (8%) stipulate men must be aged below 55 in order to have NHS fertility treatment.
A quarter of CCGs insist a woman’s Anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) level and/or antral follicle count (AFC) must be at a specific level, and 91% do not allow couples to access IVF on the NHS if one of the couple has a child from a previous relationship.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) guidelines, which advise CCGs on best practice, recommends that IVF should be offered to women under the age of 43 who have been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years, or who have had 12 cycles of artificial insemination.
NICE fertility guideline also says women under 40 should be offered 3 full cycles of IVF.
But the final decision about who can access NHS-funded IVF in England is made by CCGs, and their criteria may be tighter than those recommended by Nice.
And campaign groups are describing the criteria stipulations as a form of social rationing.
Commenting on the findings Fertility Fairness co-chairwoman Sarah Norcross said: “It is shocking to see CCGs introducing their own ‘access to IVF’ criteria, as well as reducing the number of IVF cycles they offer.
“It is not the CCG’s job to decide the criteria for accessing NHS fertility services.
“Nice has accessed the evidence in its guideline and developed access criteria for NHS patients and they do not include male BMI, male age, a woman’s AMH level or whether or not a couple has a child from a previous relationship.
“What criteria will CCGs introduce next – star signs and shoe size? CCGs need to remove their extra ‘access to IVF’ criteria now.”
Aileen Feeney, co-chairwoman of Fertility Fairness and chief executive of the charity Fertility Network UK, said: “Infertility is a devastating disease causing depression, suicidal feelings, relationship breakdown and social isolation; removing the recommended clinical help or making it harder to access is cruel and economically short-sighted.
“Access to NHS treatment should be according to medical need and not your postcode.”
She added that anyone affected can join Fertility Network’s #Scream4IVF campaign, which is calling for fair access to IVF in the UK. A petition is available to be signed at www.scream4IVF.org.
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