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Women in Scotland who were hoping to start families through IVF are having their treatment cancelled if they are not fully vaccinated.
The SNP Government said the decision to “temporarily defer” procedures had been taken due to rising Covid-19 cases and “concerns about the impact on unvaccinated women” if they caught the disease.
However, the decision was branded “inhumane” by Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s health spokesman, while medical ethics experts also raised concerns about the indefinite nature of a policy imposed on the basis of a theoretical risk of catching an illness.
Although it will be reviewed by next month and older unvaccinated women have been told they will not miss out on treatment if they pass age limits while waiting, there are no guarantees over when the ban will be lifted.
Women who received a second dose more than 12 weeks ago, but have not yet had their booster, will see their treatment paused as they do not count as fully vaccinated. Patients have been informed that treatment can resume “10 days after the booster vaccination has been received”.
“Of course I would encourage everyone to get vaccinated as the best protection against the virus,” Ms Baillie said. “But the rules were confusing at the start and treating these women in this way is inhumane.”
The changes were quietly brought in last month following a report in October which showed that of 89 pregnant Covid patients admitted to critical care units in Scotland, 88 were unvaccinated.
There has been no rule change in England to ban unvaccinated women from IVF, although vaccination is strongly recommended.
Mary Neal, an expert on healthcare law and ethics at Strathclyde University, said a blanket ban over offering a treatment to people because of the risks of catching a disease they did not have threw up ethical dilemmas.
She said that while she considered that a legal challenge would be unlikely to be successful currently, those refused treatment could potentially argue they were being unlawfully discriminated against due to their inability to conceive naturally.
Another potential claim could be that they were being denied the right to a family life, which is protected under human rights legislation, she said.
Indefinite nature of policy ‘concerning’
“On the face of it it sounds like a sensible policy,” Dr Neal, who sits on the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee, told the Telegraph.
“But my concern is the potential indefinite nature of these delays, which will cause concern to people who want to become pregnant. There is also a gendered issue, because women are more affected by the time issues around conception and birth.
“If I was a woman who was running out of time to become pregnant, I think this would hit quite hard. The indefinite nature of the policy, and the impact on individual people, are what concerns me most.”
In Scotland, women aged up to 40 can obtain three rounds of NHS funded IVF “where there is a reasonable expectation of a live birth”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases, and concerns about the impact on unvaccinated women, ministers have taken a decision to temporarily defer fertility treatment for women who are not fully vaccinated. We continue to review the evidence and will look to review this decision early this year.”