The time limit on how long eggs and sperm may be frozen in the UK is now under government review. This comes amid public concerns that women are being disproportionately affected by the current 10-year limit.
Time, when it comes to government action in the UK, can often be said to be flowing glacially slowly! This is a perfect example. The original 10-year limit (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990) was introduced when eggs could not be stored for longer periods without degrading. In essence, it served the purpose of allowing clinics to destroy samples that could never be used.
Vitrification was a game changer
However, in 2008 UK clinics successfully used vitrification, which fast freezes eggs and embryos in liquid nitrogen. This fast freeze is much more effective, allowing eggs to retain their integrity for much longer. This created an increase in social egg freezing, whereby younger women elect to preserve their eggs for future use.
In the UK, the law hasn’t kept up with this development. Consequently, many women who froze their eggs eight or more years ago are now running out of time. In 2010 only 300 women underwent the procedure. In 2016 this climbed to 1,300 according to the UK’s Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Last year, a woman, who is fighting for her chance to start a family brought the first legal challenge. Her aim was to seek a judicial review aimed at overturning the time limit. Her lawyers argued that the limit is incompatible with human rights laws on private and family life.
Fighting for the woman’s choice of when she uses her frozen eggs
The woman who has remained anonymous said, “The time limit is arbitrary and isn’t science-based. It’s unfair to prevent women who have frozen their eggs from using them.”
She had paid to freeze her eggs in 2009 because she was not in a relationship but hoped to have a baby in the future. However, the current fertility laws can compel her clinic to destroy her frozen eggs in 2020, irrespective of her wishes.
In an interview with The Guardian she said, “When I did it there were hundreds of women having this done each year; there are now thousands. I’m fighting this, not just for myself, but for the next generation of women.”
In undertaking this new review of the law, together with a public consultation, the government has taken her point.
Current law affects women’s reproductive choices
Caroline Dinenage, Minister for social care, UK said,“Every person should be given the best possible opportunity to start a family. This is why it is so important that our laws reflect the latest in technological advancements. Although this could affect any one of us, I am particularly concerned by the impact of the current law on women’s reproductive choices. A time limit can often mean women are faced with the heart-breaking decision to destroy their frozen eggs or feel pressured to have a child before they are ready.”
Ms. Dinengage also said the government will also consider issues of safety and quality and additional demand for storage facilities, should the limit be extended.
Sally Cheshire, Chairwoman, HFEA, welcomed the move. “As the fertility regulator we have heard the voices of patients and clinicians. They are calling for a review and extension of the current time limit for egg, embryo and sperm storage. While any change to the 10-year storage limit would be a matter for parliament as it requires a change in law, we believe the time is right to consider what a more appropriate storage limit could be that recognises both changes in science and in the way women are considering their fertility.”