Emily Jackson outlines the rules regulating egg freezing in the UK, and explains why the government should support a new Private Members Bill recently introduced in the Lords proposing to extend the current storage time limit.
It is easy to see the appeal of egg freezing for women who know that they want to have children in the future, but who haven’t yet met the right person. A woman’s chance of conceiving using her own eggs in an IVF cycle drops between the ages of 35 and 45 from around 30 per cent to two per cent, almost entirely as a result of the age of her eggs. Although there can be no guarantees, and it is important that women freezing their eggs understand this, if a woman freezes her eggs when she is 25, she will have a much better chance of being able to have a baby in her 40s.
The problem is that the law gives women only ten years within which to use their frozen eggs. There are options for extending this time limit, but these were designed with sperm freezing in mind, and apply only in cases of premature infertility. Unless a woman who freezes her eggs at 25 is prematurely infertile at the age of 35, the clinic will be legally required to destroy her eggs, against her wishes. A woman who paid thousands of pounds to have her eggs frozen, and to store them for ten years, may then end up having to use (and pay for) donor eggs.
To make matters worse, the storage time limit creates a perverse incentive for women to freeze their eggs after their fertility is already in decline. Clinically, the best time for a woman to freeze her eggs is when she is in her 20s or early 30s. Legally, it is more sensible to wait til her late 30s, even though this may reduce her chance of conception in the future.
None of this is intentional. Egg freezing as insurance against age-related fertility loss is a new option, and the needs of egg freezers were simply not in anyone’s minds when the regulations were drafted. The answer is not to get rid of the time limit altogether. There are good reasons to have storage time limits in the fertility clinic. People find it difficult to make decisions about the disposal of their stored embryos, sperm and eggs, and, without a time limit, clinics might have to store everything indefinitely.
Instead what is needed is an option for extension capable of applying to a woman who has not yet decided whether to use her eggs in treatment, because she has not yet completed her family. This is exactly what the Storage Period for Gametes Bill, recently introduced to the House of Lords by Baroness Ruth Deech, proposes to do. As a Private Members Bill, and given the Brexit pressures on parliamentary time, this Bill has little chance of becoming law, unless the government chooses to lend it its support.
There are, however, very good reasons why the government should offer its support to this Bill. The forced destruction of a woman’s eggs undoubtedly represents a breach of her human rights, more specifically, her right to respect for her private and family life. Of course, interferences with human rights can sometimes be justified, in order to protect the rights and freedoms of others. But it is hard to see how anyone else is harmed by permitting a 35-year-old woman to pay to store her eggs for another 10 years.
Some people might be worried about older women becoming mothers, but the ten year storage time limit is an odd and illogical way to address this concern, since it obviously does nothing to prevent older women using donor eggs. If this is the concern, it would be much better addressed through an upper age limit for female patients, which in UK clinics is set at around 50.
The latest statistics show that the number of women freezing their eggs has more than tripled in the last five years. Before thousands of women face the mandatory destruction of their eggs, a compassionate government would surely consider making a small tweak to regulations in order to offer women the not unreasonable hope of being able to conceive with their own eggs.
Emily Jackson is Professor of Law at the LSE.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).