Exclusive: Social media stars ‘Wegan’ say branch of NHS’s fertility sector in England discriminates against LGBT+ families
First published on Sun 7 Nov 2021 06.00 EST
A married lesbian couple are launching a landmark legal test case against a branch of the NHS fertility sector in England, claiming it discriminates against LGBT+ families.
Influencers Megan Bacon-Evans, 34, and her wife Whitney, 33, from Windsor in Berkshire, have accused their clinical commissioning group (CCG), Frimley, of penalising them financially because of their sexuality.
The couple, known to their 220,000 followers across YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok as “Wegan”, shot to fame as bloggers and LGBT+ role models in 2009, featuring on the BBC’s Britain’s Relationship Secrets documentary and the reality bridal show Say Yes to the Dress.
They started a petition for equal treatment in November last year after being “shocked and devastated” at the barriers to starting their family under the current rules, which are often dubbed a “gay tax”.
Frimley states that same-sex female couples, and single women and people with wombs, must pay for 12 intrauterine insemination (IUI) or IVF treatments to “prove” medical infertility, costing an estimated £30,000 or more, before receiving NHS help.
By contrast, the majority of cisgendered heterosexual couples, including Megan’s sister, are required only to try to conceive for two years.
CCG Frimley, which covers 800,000 patients across Windsor and Maidenhead, Bracknell Forest, Slough, Surrey Heath, north-east Hampshire and Farnham, denies discrimination.
On Monday, the campaigning legal firm Leigh Day, backed by Stonewall UK and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), will apply for a judicial review on behalf of the couple claiming discrimination under the Equality Act and articles eight and 14 of the European convention on human rights, in what could become a major test of the NHS’s treatment of LGBT+ families.
If permission is granted, the case could be heard as soon as January in the high court’s administrative division.
The couple, who have been married for four years, have so far spent £8,000 on donor sperm and mandatory pre-insemination tests. They have also launched a £10,000 fundraiser to cover potential legal fees, and called for support from the LGBT+ community.
Megan Bacon-Evans said: “We’re doing this for every LGBT+ couple who had to give up on their hopes and dreams of creating a family. It’s time for discrimination to end and for there to be equal treatment with heterosexual couples in the healthcare system.”
Anna Dews, of Leigh Day, told the Guardian that if the review was successful it could set a “powerful” precedent to challenge similar “unlawful” policies across the UK.
“Fertility equality” campaigners claim healthcare policies penalise individuals from LGBT+ and low-income backgrounds, forcing many into debt or dangerous, unregulated online deals with men, risking sexual assault, disease and custody battles.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), which sets guidelines for England, Northern Ireland and Wales, recommends three IVF cycles for patients under 40. Scotland operates separately.
But a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) report published in June found that England and Northern Ireland imposed “significant” financial barriers on LGBT+ families and single women.
About 76% of England’s 106 CCGs are accused of a “postcode lottery”, requiring between three and 12 private treatments before offering the same help received by heterosexual couples. Northern Ireland requires four treatments, while Scotland and Wales impose no additional costs.
“These restrictions amount to a tax on LGBT+ families, and the impact can be truly devastating,” said Marta Jansa Perez, the BPAS director of embryology. “The need for reform is urgent. We are proud to stand with Whitney and Megan in their fight for fertility equality, and we applaud their courage for publicly sharing such a personal struggle.”
Eloise Stonborough, Stonewall’s associate director of policy and research, said it was also proud to support the couple, and added: “Current Nice fertility guidelines and variations in the services available through local clinical commissioning groups create unacceptable financial and practical barriers that disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people, particularly lesbians and bi women.”
While prices vary, a round of IUI, which is cheaper than IVF but with a lower success rate, can cost £3,000-£4,000 factoring in the procedure along with the purchase, shipping and storage of medically screened sperm from a bank, mandatory tests, drugs, travel and time off work, according to campaigners.
In 2019, the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, promised a fertility sector review, claiming “sexual orientation should not be a factor in access to IVF”.
CCG Frimley has been contacted for comment.