13 February 2020
I first covered this issue last June, following Baroness Ruth Deech QC’s introduction of a Private Members’ Bill into the House of Lords on 6 June 2019 to extend the 10-year storage limit for frozen eggs and sperm in the UK. Whilst the bill highlighted the need for reform and generated debate in Parliament, it only addressed storage periods for eggs and sperm and not embryos as well. I made the point that a review of storage law should encompass frozen embryos too in order to achieve a complete review of fertility preservation law and policy in the UK. You can read my blog piece here. As such, I welcome the government’s announcement earlier this week that its review of storage law will include embryos as well as eggs and sperm.
At present, there is an arbitrary 10-year limit for storing frozen eggs, sperm and embryos in the UK. The only exception is in cases that qualify for extended storage up to 55 years where a registered medical practitioner has given a written opinion that the egg or sperm provider, or the person to be treated, is prematurely infertile or is likely to become prematurely infertile (e.g. through cancer treatment or gender reassignment).
This 10-year storage period is inflexible. It is increasingly out of step with technological advances, particularly around egg freezing. These advances have fuelled a rapid increase in egg freezing in the UK, which has increased by 257% in the last 5 years. There were 1,462 egg freezing cycles in 2017 compared with just 410 in 2012.
The 10-year storage limit is out of kilter with the needs, wishes and expectations of men and women who are leaving it until later in life before starting a family for social and economic reasons. There is no escaping the fact that the demands of modern living are making it increasingly difficult for people to start a family. This is fuelling year on year growth in demand for fertility treatment and fertility preservation. Put simply, current gamete and embryo storage law does not provide enough time for modern family building.
Current storage limits disproportionately disadvantage women because their biological clock causes their fertility to diminish at a faster rate than men’s. This is unfair and it undermines women’s reproductive choices, rights and biological legacy. If a healthy women freezes her eggs aged 28, she is currently faced with having to use them in fertility treatment by aged 38 (regardless of whether she is ready to have a child), create embryos with them (which can create difficult issues with a male partner or fuel unwanted reliance on donor sperm) or face the destruction of her eggs altogether.
It is also unfair that a women or man with a premature or absolute infertility diagnosis can store eggs or sperm for up to 55 years but a healthy woman or man cannot.
Men and women should have greater autonomy over their eggs, sperm and embryos and they should routinely be able to make decisions about their storage free from the confines of overly restrictive and outdated law in the UK.
As part of the consultation, the government has announced it will also consider the safety and quality issues related to prolonged storage and the additional demand for storage facilities that will arise if the legal storage limit is increased. The consultation is open until 5 May 2020 and it invites responses to 21 questions as part of its overall review of gamete and embryo storage law, so have your say.
Need an expert fertility lawyer? If you would like to discuss your situation or you require specialist fertility and family law advice and assistance please contact Louisa Ghevaert by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone +44 (0)20 7965 8399.