Eddie Barnes, scotsman.com, Aug. 29
ASYLUM seekers will be given NHS fertility treatment on demand in a controversial move which will mean they are treated almost three times as quickly as many Scots.
Ministers have told doctors they must provide In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) — at a cost per treatment of around £2,700 — to asylum seekers on exactly the same basis as Scottish patients.
The order was given after several asylum seekers sought IVF from the NHS in Scotland and doctors decided to seek the advice of health officials on whether they should provide the treatment.
Ministers have not only authorised IVF for those applying for asylum but have ruled that courses of treatment, which can go on for several months, should continue even if the patient’s application to remain in the UK is rejected.
Fertility treatment waiting lists across many parts of Scotland — including Edinburgh and Dundee — stand at an average of two years. The shortest waiting list, at nine months, is in Glasgow where the vast majority of asylum seekers are based.
It means that many women claiming asylum in Scotland will receive treatment far quicker than Scottish women living elsewhere in the country.
The new Scottish Executive guidance to NHS fertility clinics states: “Provided a hospital is satisfied that an asylum seeker meets the criteria for infertility treatment, which obviously is a matter for clinical judgment in each case, it should be given.”
In the case of IVF, courses of treatment typically take up to 10 weeks per cycle. Women receive two or three cycles of treatment depending on its success.
The guidance goes on to state that even if asylum seekers who are in the middle of IVF treatment are then told to leave the country “they must be allowed to stay until the course of treatment is complete”.
One Edinburgh-based medical insider said: “There are some tragic stories of women from countries who say they can’t conceive. But at the end of the day, has anyone ever died from not getting IVF?
“There’s no evidence yet of asylum seekers using this deliberately as a way of staying in the country, but word does get round.”
Critics also point out that mothers who are pregnant or have a child have a far greater chance of staying in the UK.
The decision to give asylum seekers treatment has already been taken in many English areas, prompting claims that the NHS was encouraging “test-tube tourism”.
However, foreign citizens in the UK who are not seeking asylum are not allowed to receive the treatment. Government lawyers have already taken the view that until a case is brought, there is nothing in the European Convention of Human Rights which entitles childless couples to IVF treatment.
Critics warned that the move would be poorly received by couples already waiting for treatment.
Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon, who is campaigning for improved IVF access in Scotland, said: “Any decision to give IVF treatment to asylum seekers should be taken against a background of many couples in Scotland who have to wait over two years for treatment. Others who have had to remortgage their homes and take out big loans to fund their own treatment.
“In one particular case, one couple have been asking for IVF and they are still in the system for treatment five years after approaching the NHS.
“I would hope IVF treatment is not being abused or exploited in order to ease immigration difficulties. Given that there is a finite level of resources and given that women are waiting two years for treatment, the result of this decision is that many couples in Scotland will go further down the queue.”
She went on: “I would have thought that if the Health Minister made such a decision he would allocate additional resources so that women are not disadvantaged.”
Access to IVF in Scotland has improved in recent years, and is thought to be far better than in England. In 2000, new guidance was issued to ensure that access to treatment was fair across the whole of Scotland.
However, claims of a ‘postcode lottery’ linger, with the length of time couples have to wait for treatment still dependent on where they live.
In both the Lothians and Tayside, the average wait is currently two years. In Dumfries and Galloway it is 21 months, in Lanarkshire, 16 months, while in Glasgow, Argyll and Clyde, and Ayrshire and Arran, the wait is a mere nine months. Figures were not available for other areas.
Access to the treatment is still tightly regulated, and is only available to women aged under 38. Couples who have a child living in their home are also barred from receiving treatment.
It is expected that almost all the referrals for asylum seekers’ treatment will be handled at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary. The city currently has 5,907 asylum seekers, from countries including Turkey, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Kosovo.
Sally Daghlian, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said the question of whether asylum seekers should receive fertility treatment was one for doctors to take.
She said: “It is a complex medical, ethical and emotional issue, which is best dealt with by the medical and social work professions.”
(Posted on September 2, 2004)