A lesbian couple who lost their jobs in the Covid-19 pandemic eager to become parents won a free IVF cycle from an Instagram giveaway.
As an LGBTQ+ couple, Cleopatra, 36, and Sam, 30 were not entitled to any NHS funding, leaving them facing costs of thousands of pounds by going private.
At the start of 2021, the pair, from Brighton, went for a health check to learn more about their ovarian reserve to start exploring the possibility of undergoing intrauterine insemination (IUI).
To their shock, they were both told IVF would be the only option due to their low reserves.
Cleopatra told the Mirror: “We both had a low egg reserve which wasn’t a surprise for me because I have endometriosis and have had surgery.
“Sam, who was 29 at the time, got hers checked and was surprised and taken aback because she never had trouble with periods and had no indicators of any health issues.”
The couple was advised they needed to try as soon as possible to have children of their own.
Cleopatra added: “We didn’t have the funds and we had just lost our jobs due to Covid-19 when we just happened to see on Instagram that the Fertility Help Hub was doing an initiative where they were giving away a free IVF cycle.”
The couple decided to apply and couldn’t believe it when they were chosen as the lucky couple to go to the Agora Clinic in Brighton.
Although the egg retrieval, egg implantation, storage of the embryos, and clinic work were covered by the Fertility Health Hub – they still had to pay for the sperm, medication and blood work which cost them between £5,000 and £6,000.
Cleopatra said: “Without it, it is hard to say what we would have done and how we would have got the funds together.
“Sperm is fairly expensive and they recommend getting multiple vials.
“We wanted to use my eggs and for Sam to carry, but because of my endometriosis it wasn’t possible so Sam carried with her eggs.”
Cleopatra and Sam welcomed their healthy baby Maude at the end of May.
Cleopatra said: “Sam did great, we are absolutely over the moon. She did a great job and it was a straightforward pregnancy.”
She added: “You would have thought that same-sex couples would have access to the same procedures.
“None of our family or friends knew and everyone was surprised. I think it is something that isn’t documented well at all.
“This is something where discrimination is still allowed and still so apparent.”
NHS funding for IVF varies depending on the local clinical commissioning group (CCG), making it a postcode lottery.
Cleopatra said: “I’m not looking for special treatment, I just want to be treated the same as everyone else. I don’t want to be discriminated against.
“When I was younger I thought it would only be a dream that would never be fulfilled. I am still very fortunate because I never thought I would be able to do this.”
She continued: “The Agora Clinic and the Fertility Health Hub were so helpful and are grateful to those organisations. We feel really lucky that we got this through Instagram.”
The Agora Clinic in Brighton is nationally recognised in LGBTQ+ parenting in the UK. When the Fertility Help Hub announced its initiative, the Agora Clinic partnered up.
Dr Carole Gilling-Smith, a consultant, gynaecologist and fertility specialist at the Agora Clinic, told The Mirror: “For Sam and Cleo they were looking for help and they were struggling financially – I had worked with the Fertility Help Hub since it started and it’s great at supporting patients who don’t know where to go or who to trust.
“When Eloise Edington, the founder, said she wanted to launch this campaign I immediately put my hand up and said my team would love to support a couple.
“We chose Sam and Cleo because we were really touched by their story. We felt we had really helped a couple that didn’t have the financial means to have a kid.”
Dr Gilling-Smith, who opened the clinic in 2007, added: “It was evident to me that same-sex couples and single women were very much discriminated against in the fertility world.”
After Cleopatra and Sam were offered their free IVF cycle, the Sussex CCG announced that same-sex female couples and single women would be eligible to receive IUI and IVF treatment with donor sperm.
Dr Gilling-Smith said: “Now patients like Sam and Cleo are being referred to Agora through the NH. I don’t think there are many NHS clinics in the UK that can do this.
“The reality about much of the NHS work is that it is a postcode lottery, a different CCG will have different funding priorities. The money is determined by localities and Sussex CCG has been generous.
“They offer six cycles fully funded and if it’s not successful they go down the IVF plan.
“For me, I am passionate and believe in equality, diversity and inclusivity, and we can here we have a very good model for the rest of the UK.”
However, Dr Gilling-Smith says their model is not perfect.
She said: “It is not yet at the point of full inclusivity because same-sex male couples have not been given the same fertility pathway.
“I think part of the problem with commissioners is there is a lack of understanding and the various pathways are rather complex.”
The most recent changes from the Sussex CCG did not include funding for IVF to create embryos in same-sex male couples needing surrogacy.
Dr Gilling-Smith added: “Surrogacy is growing in the UK – many many women are coming forward to donate eggs or be a surrogate and the NHS is not prepared to fund that.”
She remains hopeful and believes sweeping changes on how the NHS funded fertility are on the way.
She explained the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is revising its guidance on fertility in 2013 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) are also carefully reviewing regulations in light of the Equality Act.
Dr Gilling-Smith added: “I believe that changes in how the NHS is funded will change in the next two or three years because the pressure is on from professionals and patients.
“Ultimately for me, my purpose is to help bring children into this world that are loved.”