A British couple who are fighting to save their unused IVF embryos from destruction are hoping to have them transferred to a Belgian clinic, following negotiations with the UK's fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). According to current UK law, the embryos should have been destroyed last Monday, as they are only allowed to be kept in storage for five years if they were created with the intention of having them carried by a surrogate.
Michelle Hickman and Martin Hymers, who underwent IVF treatment after Michelle had her womb removed, created the embryos in question in 2001. However, since that time, they have not managed to find a suitable surrogate to carry them. The couple found out in December 2005 that embryos intended for treatments involving surrogacy can only be kept in frozen storage for five years and have been fighting since then to be allowed to transfer the embryos to a fertility clinic abroad.
Ms Hickman, now aged 33, underwent an emergency hysterectomy operation six years ago, after the birth of the couple's son, Robert. Following the advice of doctors, the couple decided to undergo fertility treatment at the Manchester Fertility Services clinic, and to freeze any resulting embryos while they searched for a surrogate to carry them. Manchester Fertility Services has agreed to store the embryos, even though this is technically 'against the law', as the embryos were only allowed to remain in storage until 8 May 2006. Unlike embryos created during treatment for other types of infertility, the couple are not allowed to apply for an extension to the storage time, which can allow embryos to be kept for up to ten years. The couple also have another batch of seven embryos in storage, which could be disposed of next year, if the couple still cannot find a surrogate.
The 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act - which governs all fertility treatment and research involving embryos in the UK - is currently under review, so the couple is hoping that the law will change for the future - however, any change is likely to come too late to save their own embryos. Instead, they are trying to move them to storage facilities overseas. Negotiations are continuing with the HFEA, and a fertility clinic in Belgium, which is considering taking charge of the embryos - perhaps with a view to returning them to the UK after the law has changed. Ms Hickman said that although the embryos are in storage, 'they are part of our family. We just cannot abandon them'. She added: 'There is just no logic to it at all. Why would you discriminate against people like that? For host surrogacy you need more time'.
When the couple's situation was first raised, a spokesman for the HFEA said that the authority recognised that the current law does appear to discriminate against couples hoping to use embryos in surrogacy arrangements, adding that 'both the HFEA and fertility professionals have already raised this issue with the Government as one that needs reconsidering in the ongoing review of fertility legislation'. The HFEA has since clarified that 'the only option that the law would allow would be for the couple to take their embryos abroad'. Dr Brian Lieberman, of Manchester Fertility Services, called the law 'illogical and manifestly wrong', adding that 'it is very unfair that there is a time pressure put on them. They have got enough problems as it is without having to deal with some anomaly in the law'.
Dr Kirsty Horsey is Contributing Editor at BioNews. She is coeditor of Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and coauthor of Tort Law (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA) and Skills For Law Students (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).