A case for policy change? Are the current provisions for storage of eggs, sperm and embryos fit for purpose?

People undergo (or plan to undergo) fertility treatment in a variety of circumstances, many of which will involve the preservation en route of gametes and embryos by freezing eg: seeking to preserve eggs or sperm prior to having cytotoxic treatment or surgery or freezing some of the embryos created in vitro for potential future use.

With significant improvements in freezing technologies since the last review of the legislation (which currently provides for decade-long storage as a base-line, with the possibility of much longer periods in certain circumstances) together with changing lifestyle trends, the Government has been persuaded that there may be a case for amending the current framework and wishes to test public and professional opinion.

The Department of Health and Social Care has accordingly launched a public consultation on changing the time limit for storing gametes (eggs and sperm) and embryos for fertility treatment.

The consultation

The consultation document poses 21 questions about the storage period. The questions cover two discrete areas and include possible changes to:

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990

One option is to consider an increase in the 10-year limit on the storage of eggs, in particular, because of improvements to egg freezing efficacy and the fact that eggs are more fertile if frozen at a younger age (under the current law, they also then have to be used at a younger age, which is felt to be restrictive of choice for those who may wish to wait longer before trying to create a family).  Weighing in the balance against these factors are issues of increased demand for storage facilities as a result of longer storage limits, together with concerns relating to degeneration of genetic material over a longer period of cryopreservation and increased maternal age at conception. Such considerations may even, it is suggested, lead to pressure for a shortening of the storage period.  Questions 1 to 11 cover these issues.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Statutory Storage Period for Gametes and Embryos) Regulations 2009

Currently this stands (broadly) at 10 years, with extensions possible if the person can provide medical evidence that (s)he is prematurely infertile or likely to become prematurely infertile. Extensions can be given up to 10 years at a time up to a maximum storage limit of 55 years. Questions 12 to 21 cover this area and seek views on whether the provisions that allow for extensions of the 10-year period in this way remain appropriate.

Perhaps the most interesting questions are not just whether the time limit should be raised or lowered and why, but whether a one-size-fits-all approach is right (a set period across the board for eggs, sperm and embryos) and whether (and if so, what) conditions should be applied to those seeking to freeze gametes or embryos beyond a certain limit.

You can respond online. The closing date for responses is 5 May 2020.

Next steps

Following the closure of this consultation, the Government will consider the submissions made and publish its formal response as to whether any changes should be made to the current legislation and, if so, what those changes should be.

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