Same-sex couples and women over 40 will be entitled to free in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment through the National Health Service (NHS), for the first time according to guidelines to be published today.

The recommendations, which puts same-sex couples on par with heterosexual couples when it comes to fertility treatment, is issued by the government watchdog for cost-effective treatment in the NHS, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

Then new guidelines also call on health authorities in England and Wales to fund intra-uterine insemination (IUI), which uses donor sperms to help same-sex couples conceive. If IUI should fail for six cycles in a row, then, they should be considered for the more costly, and medically complex IVF, the guidelines will say.

These consequences follow the implementation of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, passed by Labour in 2008, which put same-sex parenting and heterosexual parenting on equal footing in the eyes of the law.

That there has been a concomitant increase in demand from gay couples for fertility services is confirmed by figures: for example, in the three years from 2007 to 2010, the number of lesbian couples undergoing IVF nearly trebled from 178 to 417. Till now, gay couples usually had to resort to private treatment, which cost up to £8,000 per couple, with a reduction in the chances of successful conception with increase in age.

The gay rights charity Stonewall has quickly welcome the move, with its director for public affairs, Ruth Hunt saying it was an ‘explicit acknowledgement of the issues same-sex couples face.’ However, some rightwing groups, such as the Comment on Reproductive Ethics, have described the move as ‘absurd.’ Speaking to the Telegraph, a spokesperson for the latter said this was an attempt to ‘rewrite biology.’

Sir Andrew Dillion, chief executive of NICE, said on the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that this was ‘the right thing to do’ for older women who desire to conceive, and for same-sex couples.