IVF secret: Medicare covers donor tests
Jen Kelly, medical reporter
Melbourne Herald Sun
SINGLE women and lesbians have secretly won the right to taxpayer-funded fertility treatment.
The radical switch - designed to beat a state ban - is certain to cause controversy as it allows so-called "socially infertile" women to inseminate themselves with the help of Victoria's IVF clinics.
If do-it-yourself home insemination fails four times, the women can be deemed medically infertile and granted full access to IVF.
Until now, lesbians and single women who are not medically infertile have been banned from all fertility treatment in Victoria.
The shake-up follows talks between the state's infertility watchdog -- the Infertility Treatment Authority -- and Melbourne IVF.
Melbourne IVF chairman Dr John McBain said it was not illegal because doctors were not doing the insemination.
"It's not a reproductive service if we're not performing it," Dr McBain told the Herald Sun.
"I'm really proud we've been able to circumvent the restrictive government and ITA ruling in this, which has forced people who want to do the right thing to go interstate rather than seek a safe remedy in Victoria."
The change was not publicly announced.
Within weeks, men will be allowed to donate sperm at the Royal Women's Hospital, and have the sample screened for disease through the hospital's reproductive service, or at Melbourne IVF, one of Victoria's biggest private fertility centres.
To avoid breaching state laws women will take the screened sample away from the clinic for self-insemination.
The switch comes four years after Premier Steve Bracks [a Catholic] vowed only infertile lesbians and single women would have the right to IVF.
After the Federal Court toppled Victorian laws in July 2000, which restricted IVF lesbians and single women, the Bracks Government ruled that IVF would be restricted to medically infertile women.
"Those guidelines will ensure that infertile women receive IVF, not those who use it for social reasons, or their own choice in lifestyle," Mr Bracks said at the time.[Of course, married couples would never have children for social reasons or as a lifestyle choice.]
Taxpayers will help pay for the new procedures, with the cost of sperm testing being covered by Medicare.
Melbourne IVF director Dr Penelope Foster said the service aimed to make self-insemination safer.
"It means women in lesbian relationships can now have the same safe donor sperm treatment as their heterosexual sisters," Dr Foster said.
"Safe means the donor has been medically screened, and done a genetic health questionnaire, and his sperm has been screened, and tested, and quarantined."
The move could be the first step towards lesbians and single women winning full access to IVF.
In another first, the ITA will also regulate sperm donors recruited for self-insemination, and the children of donors.
Sperm donors will have to list their names so children can contact them at the age of 18.
Donors will sign away their rights to claim any access or guardianship of the children.
In return, the rules will protect donors from any financial claims from offspring or their mothers.
And Dr Foster said an agreement reached with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages meant the sperm donors would not be listed on birth certificates.
"At present the sperm donors are not protected at all, so no matter what they'd agreed in private, they could name him (on the birth certificate)," she said. Lesbians and single women must still find their own sperm donor.
Previously, they have had to head interstate in a trend dubbed "reproductive tourism" or, alternatively, self-inseminate with unscreened sperm from a friend.
The sperm donors recruited by women for self-insemination will be able to receive counselling through the IVF clinic, as will the women.
The service will cost from about $300 for counselling and a year's frozen storage of the donor's sperm in a vial, so women can have more than one attempt.
The donor and his sperm are tested at the outset for a range of diseases, including HIV and hepatitis.
The sperm is frozen in quarantine for six months, when the man is given a further HIV test, before the sample is released to the woman.
The clinic supplies a $10 plastic, needle-less syringe for the women to inseminate themselves at home.
Melbourne IVF documents say one sperm donor may donate to both women in a lesbian relationship.
Dr McBain last week said he wrote to Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls advising him of the new service.
The Infertility Treatment Authority has a document on its website, dated November 2003, called Storage of Sperm using Known Donors for the Purposes of Self-Insemination.
The policy imposes certain interim conditions on the service, including requirements for counselling and consent forms, and says the guidelines will be in place until December this year.
It says a review will take place this October, with a view to making recommendations about any changes that might be put into effect from January 1 next year.
Melbourne IVF and the Royal Womens' Hospital are only now able to begin offering the service because it has taken eight months to develop their procedures and consent forms, as required by the ITA.