The Sunday Telegraph
We in Britain like to think of ourselves as terribly sexually liberal, and in many ways we are. Unlike in many European countries, women can easily get their hands on an affordable morning after pill from any pharmacy. Abortions are easily available, as they should be, in stark contrast to the grim situation in Poland and some American states. Single men can now use donor eggs and surrogates to become fathers, while gay and straight couples, married or otherwise, have long been invited to adopt or have biological children.
The only segment of society missing from Britain’s liberal largesse seems to be single women who want children, dubbed “socially infertile” and among the fastest growing groups in the country. They are least deserving of the dismissive and sexist treatment of them.
I was reminded of this last week when France, which has lagged behind Britain in the laws governing fertility treatments, suddenly leapt ahead, saying that it would be extending state healthcare to IVF fertility treatment for women who are not in a relationship with a man.
In Britain, however, single women who want babies without having to dupe a casual partner, or risk their health by having unprotected sex, must pay a fortune, whereas treatment is offered for free to couples. It is hard not to infer that the NHS position on women who have been unable to make happy families – or, to put it bluntly, to find a man who will commit within her fertile window, or else settle for one she wouldn’t trust to share a pet with, let alone raise a baby – is that they don’t deserve to have children at all.
It is odd that in a smugly liberal Britain, sex change therapies, from counselling to puberty blockers to surgery, are available for children and adults on the NHS, but single women are barred from any support.
This sorry irony becomes plain incomprehensible in light of recent figures suggesting that Britain’s fertility rate has plummeted during lockdown, sinking even lower than the previous nadir in 2001, before the wave of immigration from the EU.
Last week, Boris Johnson was reportedly furious with Priti Patel for failing to prevent the arrival of thousands of illegal migrants via the English Channel this year alone. With our crackdown on migrants, and our exit from the EU making it harder for other, more reproductively-inclined people to move to Britain, we will soon be facing a real problem with birth rates. The state needs women to have babies, so making the process as miserable and costly as possible for single British women is bizarre.
Other countries show that far kinder, more sensible policies are possible. In Israel, which is both sexually liberal and fervently natalist, women are offered unlimited free IVF until the age of 45, or until they have two babies.
But in dreary NHS Britain, even for couples the strictures are unduly punitive, especially where age is concerned. If Israel correctly recognises that women can conceive into their 40s, with older women making mature, well-equipped mothers, British women over 42 won’t under any circumstances receive help on the NHS, while those over 40 will only be given one cycle of IVF (despite being the most likely to need more), and only if they’ve met a lengthy list of conditions, , including that they’ve never had IVF before, have good ovarian reserve, have been “trying through regular unprotected sex for two years, or haven’t been able to get pregnant after 12 cycles” – 12! – “of artificial insemination.”
Most couples I know who have been trying for just six months, let alone two years, encounter problems: sex becomes a psychological minefield and the relationship comes under untold strain. And a dozen rounds of artificial insemination? That’s £1,200 a pop, minimum, which comes to £14,400. Then there’s the postcode lottery aspect of it: availability differs wildly, depending on where you live.
Fertility treatment in the UK is more regulated, restrictive and costly than in other countries: single women trying artificial insemination have to pay hundreds of pounds in tests and consultations before they can even be inseminated.
The selection of sperm donors in the UK is among the worst in the world because British donors aren’t paid or recompensed in any way. So women have to use foreign sperm banks. Despite this, clinics severely restrict women’s choice: the Lister, one of the best-known fertility clinics in London, forces its patients to choose from just three overseas sperm banks.
At a time when we face a sinking birth rate, the state should be positively begging single women to try to get pregnant in a healthy, responsible manner, not punishing them for wanting to do so.
Other countries show that far kinder, more sensible policies are possible