Plans to temporarily halt access to new patients wanting IVF treatment have been branded distressing and financially short-sighted.
Organisations that support people experiencing fertility problems have hit out after health bosses proposed that IVF will not be available to new patients in Northern Ireland between October and next April.
It is part of a swathe of cost-cutting measures proposed in the absence of a health budget and health minister following on from the collapse earlier this year of powersharing government at Stormont.
Susan Seenan, co-chair of Fertility Fairness, said the organisation is appalled at the proposal, and went on to warn that more patients could end up having to travel abroad for treatment.
"This will cause unnecessary suffering for already stressed patients and is an economically short-sighted measure," she said.
"Struggling with the disease of infertility can lead to significant mental health problems including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
"Patients are more likely to present to their GPs, often struggle to hold down jobs, and face an increased rate of marriage breakdown.
"Deferring funding will also increase the risk that more patients will travel abroad for reduced cost fertility treatment, which is highly likely to drive up the number of multiple births which are of high risk to mother and babies and incur additional medical costs. There is therefore significant value in continuing to fund fertility treatment without the proposed five-month deferral."
Meanwhile, Sharon Davidson, the Northern Ireland co-ordinator for Fertility Network UK, said she has been inundated with calls from people who are already distressed and waiting "unnecessarily long times".
"We are dealing with calls from distressed patients who have put their lives on hold, desperately waiting for their one chance to try for a baby," she said. "Couples with fertility problems are already waiting unnecessarily long times: there is currently a lengthy 18-month wait from GP referral to starting IVF or ICSI, and prior to this patients can have been struggling to conceive for three years before they qualify for NHS fertility treatment.
"Prompt access to NHS fertility services is crucial for patients to have the best possible chance of success."
She urged everyone affected by the proposed cuts to complete the public consultation document at www.belfasttrust.hscni.net/about/Consultations.htm.