FIFA and WSL referee Stacey Pearson on 'devastating' experience of failed IVF attempts and starting petition to parliament

Women's Super League fans know all about Stacey Pearson's strong sense of fair play - now the FIFA referee is campaigning for a levelling-up of NHS treatment in the UK that would help other women like her, including many footballers

SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Referee Stacey Pearson during the Barclays FA Women's Super League match between Everton Women and Manchester City Women at Haig Avenue on December 6, 2020 in Southport, England. (Photo by Joe Prior/Visionhaus) *** Local Caption *** Stacey Pearson
Image: Stacey Pearson continues to climb the ladder as a referee and is now campaigning for equality off the pitch too

Being added to the FIFA List last year was a ringing endorsement of Stacey Pearson's credentials as a referee.

Yet her commitment to fighting for fair play is by no means confined to the football pitch. In recent weeks, she has taken on a campaign that is looking to change the laws of the land - and it's attracting the support of many players across the women's game.

Pearson was a talented footballer herself - she spent nearly a decade with Yeovil, memorably scoring a hat-trick in their first-ever FA Women's Super League fixture seven years ago - before rising through the domestic officiating ranks. She now takes charge of matches in the WSL and in the men's non-league game as a Level 3 referee, while her most recent international assignment was Wales' friendly with Denmark earlier this month.

In mid-March, she tweeted out a link to a newly-published blog, with a cover image that read 'Time For Change'. She wrote: "In the last year, my partner and I have suffered two miscarriages. We have decided to share our struggles with IVF and try and make a difference for others." She followed up by creating a petition on the Change.org website titled 'Funded IVF for Same Sex Couples in England'.

Pearson spoke about the fertility procedure and the background to the campaign started by herself and partner Danielle Beazer while on a football panel event held by the Women@Sky and LGBT+@Sky networks in support of Lesbian Visibility Week.

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"We've got a little girl called Willow, who's nearly three," said Pearson. "She was our first IVF attempt, and I don't think we appreciated back then just how lucky we were for it to work first time.

"IVF is a treatment where eggs are collected, fertilised, and transferred to the womb. Perhaps we were a bit naive about the whole process because we were just so excited to start our family.

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"We then had a failed IVF cycle in October 2019. The idea was that Danielle would carry my egg, but my right ovary didn't respond as I would have liked it to. We decided instead to use the frozen embryo that we had left over from the first cycle, when we had Willow. Sadly, that didn't work either.

"We then had another full round of IVF in March last year, just before the lockdown. We had to get a different sperm donor - we wanted to keep the sperm that we have frozen for myself when I eventually have a child so that the siblings, if we're successful, are biologically related.

"The treatment worked, and Danielle got pregnant - but sadly we had a miscarriage. We found out at the seven-week scan. It was stressful going through that in COVID times because I wasn't allowed to go to any appointments. Danielle was there on her own. It was pretty rough.

"After that devastating loss, we decided in February of this year that we were ready to go again, using a frozen embryo left over from the cycle in 2020. It worked to start with - but then we had another unexplained miscarriage."

Discovering the 'disparity'

They are still coming to terms with the mental and physical strain of this process, but one thing that is helping is a decision they made to try to help others. They have channelled their shared pain into a petition, having grown frustrated at a clear and obvious 'postcode lottery' that is affecting hundreds of same-sex couples in the UK.

"It wasn't until I did some research that I realised for a same-sex couple living 45 minutes away from us in Cardiff, and who were just starting out on their IVF journey, they would get two rounds of treatment funded on the NHS," said Pearson.

"This is if they haven't got a child already. Meanwhile, in England, same-sex couples must have had six failed attempts at IVF or 12 at IUI before they can get one funded attempt. IUI is where sperm is injected into the womb in the hope that the natural process of fertilisation takes place.

"Meanwhile, in Scotland, you would get three funded attempts at IUI, and in Northern Ireland, you would get one free attempt."

In addition, the rules are the same in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland for all couples, whether they are in heterosexual or same-sex relationships.

It means Pearson and Beazer feel even more fortunate to have had Willow but amid their heartbreak at the setbacks to growing their own family, they became increasingly conscious of the unseen hurdles facing other would-be parents - including many in their sporting circles.

"We decided we needed to start talking about this because there's such a disparity between the countries," said Pearson.

"IVF and IUI are so costly. You could be looking at paying as much as £20,000 yourselves before you get any funded treatment on the NHS.

"Since we've gone public, we've had so many couples or friends of mine who I used to play football with telling us that they're in the same position, or that it's slightly different but that they couldn't get funding either.

"I've even had one couple who live in England contact us to say because of where they live, they've managed to get two rounds for free on the NHS - so it literally is a postcode lottery."

READING, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Referee Stacey Pearson during the Barclays FA Women's Super League match between Reading Women and Everton Women at Madejski Stadium on February 14, 2021 in Reading, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images) 0:25
Pearson, who works as a P.E. teacher, hopes fellow LGBT+ women in sport continue to feel confident and speak out about the need to embrace diversity

The objectives of the petition are to have the issue discussed in parliament with contributions from fertility experts, and to get the chance to work with officials from Clinical Commissioning Groups - the boards currently tasked by NHS trusts with decision-making for IVF treatment at a local level in England. Over 32,000 signatures are on the petition at the time of writing.

"I just want to make it easier for other couples who come after us," says Pearson. "It's a rollercoaster of a journey and you need to prepare yourself emotionally.

"We've encouraged those who have signed the petition to write to their MPs - there was a review that should have taken place in 2019 and we want that completed to try and get equality for same-sex couples.

"It would mean there's less of a financial burden. Some couples who I know cannot try to have a child at the moment because they can't afford it. There are many couples who might be amazing parents, but cost is a barrier to them."

Manchester City's Keira Walsh greets referee Stacey Pearson before the FA Women's Super League match at the Academy Stadium, Manchester. Picture date: Saturday March 27, 2021.
Image: Pearson regularly takes charge of big games in the Women's Super League and is highly respected by the players

Referees naturally possess a strong sense of right and wrong but not all are comfortable with having a more public profile. Pearson divides her time between home, the pitch, and her day job as a P.E. teacher and her memories of a time when LGBT+ people still lived in the shadows of society have not yet faded.

"I left school in 2003 and that's when Section 28 was in place. Schools weren't teaching anything about same-sex relationships, so I grew up thinking it wasn't 'normal'," says the 34-year-old.

"Now I know that I can have a positive impact on the children that I teach - they can see me as visible and out as both a teacher and as a ref. I just hope that continues for future generations - it's about embracing your identity. I only wish I'd had someone that I felt I could talk to when I was at school.

"A couple of weeks ago, a Year 11 boy was in tears about his feelings. But the other day he said to me, 'miss, I'm just going to embrace it'. To see the difference in him after he went away, reflected on it, and was able to accept himself... that's the kind of environment we need."

Danielle Beazer, Willow, Stacey Pearson
Image: Pearson (r) and partner Danielle, pictured with their daughter Willow, are hoping to help other same-sex couples on IVF journeys

Pearson is encouraged by the inclusive message that the WSL continues to send out, such as through its support of the Rainbow Laces campaign, but perhaps unsurprisingly she would like to see the league's power harnessed more through education, making full use of its diverse personalities.

"For LGBT+ women in the game, it's not only about being visible on TV. Ideally, we want people going into schools and doing more work there. I always come at it from a teacher point of view - I can talk about it until I'm blue in the face but some kids just don't get it because I'm a teacher and that's what I'm supposed to say.

"Having more role models in schools and educating that way from primary up to secondary could make a real difference."

There's a lot to be said for solidarity too, she insists. "We have women across football all using our platforms to try to make positive change.

"I'm fighting for a cause here and there are so many other people doing the same. If we were all able to team up, we'd make change happen more quickly.

"I ask players, fans, coaches, everyone to show your support and solidarity by signing and sharing the petition to help us fight for equality with an issue that can affect so many of us in the women's football community."

Pearson might not be banging in hat-tricks anymore but hitting targets is a life skill. That's got to be good news for other couples like her and Danielle who might be struggling to find their own 'happy ever after'.

Visit 'TwoMumsIVFJourney' - Stacey Pearson and Danielle Beazer's blog - and access their Change.org petition.

Lesbian Visibility Week runs from Monday, April 26, to Sunday, May 2.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. Your story of being LGBT+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone's game. To discuss further, please contact us here.

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