Fertility

New Egg Freezing Law Will Give Women More Choice

Eloise Edington  |   10 Sep 2021


Government and fertility specialists are acknowledging that the current 10-year limit on storage for frozen embryos, eggs and sperm is restrictive on reproductive choices, as well as unequal (those who can prove that they have become prematurely infertile are already able to store their genetic material for longer).  A new law will extend the limit to 55 years for all who wish to freeze their eggs, sperm or embryos.

At Fertility Help Hub, we want to bring the latest information to our readers, so that you are kept up-to-date on new law and medical advances. In this case, ‘vitrification’ is a development by which genetic material is preserved through an ultra-rapid freezing method which has many advantages over the conventional slow freezing method and means that frozen eggs can be stored indefinitely without deterioration. Read on to find out how the 55-year limit will apply and how it may help many people to have more choice about when they start their family.

Words by Katherine Compton

What are the Reasons for Egg, Sperm and Embryo Freezing?

Some people choose to freeze their eggs or sperm due to a variety of reasons, such as: predicted early infertility; medical treatments that may negatively impact fertility; gender reconstruction surgery; finances and circumstances, or just not having met ‘the right person’. Another reason may simply be to donate to families who may not be able to conceive on their own.

Embryos may also be frozen so that parents have the option to use the stored embryos in multiple rounds of fertility treatment or in the case of wanting their child to have a biological sibling. Embryos can be frozen at the 2-8 cell stage or later in development.

Extending the Time Limit

The current law states that (except for those who can prove premature infertility), after ten years, the prospective parents must decide whether to use the material for immediate fertility treatment or destroy any remaining embryos, eggs or sperm in storage.

The present storage limit greatly affects women who intend to have children sometime in the future but not yet. They presently have two choices. They can either:

Preserve their eggs at a young age and possibly be met with the dilemma of having to use those eggs within ten years

or

Delay and risk there being fewer eggs either for natural conception or for later IVF treatment because their ovarian reserve will have depleted due to age.

This conundrum has led some women to use storage facilities abroad which can be costly and may lack regulatory controls in certain countries.

How COVID has Affected the Ten-Year Limit on Freezing

COVID caused many couples to have to wait to undergo IVF treatments, bringing into focus the review of the ten-year limit. The pandemic’s disruptions to reproductive services initiated a two-year extension to the freezing storage limits. This brought into question why there is a ten-year limit in the first place if quality is not affected over time. With vitrification, cryopreservation techniques have significantly improved, meaning that frozen eggs today now have the same developmental potential as fresh eggs, and clinical pregnancies from thawed eggs show the same results as those with fresh eggs in IVF treatment. (Although in 2017, in a survey of UK patients aged 35 and under, the birth rates of frozen embryos were slightly less than that of fresh). The government’s plans to increase statutory storage limits are without prejudice to the reason behind the decision to opt for cryopreservation, thus making a level playing field for all. Every ten years, the prospective parents will have the option to renew their storage up to a limit of 55 years.

What the Extended Limit Means For Women

Women will have more choice and be under less time strain.  Those supporting the change in the rules (74% of the opinion polled) felt that some of the reasons for undergoing reproductive cryopreservation in the first place may still not be resolved within ten years, resulting in undue pressure to start a family or rendering the cryopreservation pointless.

Julia Chain, Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has said that the extension will give women freedom to choose when or if they would like to start a family. The earlier a woman freezes her eggs, the better the quality and success rates for IVF. The ten-year limit may have prevented women from freezing their eggs at a healthy time if they were expected to use them within ten years.

Who the Extended Limit Benefits

This new limit will apply to everyone regardless of medical needs and will allow more reproductive choice. It gives people the opportunity to make a considered choice about the right time to have their family, without pressure.

Government and Medical Opinion on the Proposed Extension

Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has stated that the current ten-year limit is “severely restrictive”, whilst doctors have noted that the ten-year limit is not based on science as there’s now no impact on quality, should the frozen duration be extended. Research from the Royal College of Obstetricians suggests that modern freezing techniques could store embryos, eggs and sperm indefinitely while maintaining as much potential as fresh genetic material.

Is this altogether a good thing?

The ethics of this move are not by any means clear-cut.  Questioning whether this change is in the selfish interests of the parents rather than the good of the child, some people are concerned about the increase in age of parents that may occur due to the extension, and the impact this may have on both the parents and the child. However, government and the HFEA are giving assurances that regulations will be made to prevent children being born to old parents. One proposal has been that an intended parent not be allowed to use the frozen material beyond their 50th birthday. There would also be measures against medical misconduct.

Potential Conditions on Storage Limits

In determining the policy for the extension, the government has four key tests in mind:

  • Ensuring equity for all patients
  • Facilitating greater reproductive choice
  • Reducing burden to fertility clinics
  • Ensuring public acceptability

There still remain some points to be decided e.g. conditions regarding third party sperm donation and genetic material of those who have passed away. The plans still require parliamentary approval to become law, but based on the support from doctors, government ministers and public opinion, the change is likely to be approved.

Possible additional conditions that have been suggested (but not confirmed) include:

  • The fertility clinic should be assessed regularly to check storage conditions
  • The fertility clinic should regularly ask for the renewed consent of the sperm / egg donor to hold their cells in storage
  • The egg / sperm donor should have to undergo regular physical and mental assessments to confirm that they are still capable of being a parent
  • The latest scientific fertility advice should be considered (for example, if future studies suggested problem with preserving cells for this long, though no issues have currently arisen from research).

The extension is undeniably good news for all who feel the pressure of time and age limit on their fertility. ​

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