12 September 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 868
The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, updated in 2008, allows eggs to be stored for up to ten years. The limit was originally introduced because the effects of longer-term storage were unknown, and extensions are only allowed for medical reasons such as those undergoing premature infertility.
Yet following the development of a new fast-freezing technique known as vitrification, many fertility clinics are now beginning to offer women the option of 'social' egg freezing, which allows women to freeze their eggs as a way to delay motherhood until a later age, when becoming pregnant becomes harder due to the natural age-related decline in fertility.
However, after examining the implications of the statutory time limit in the context of social egg freezing, Professor Emily Jackson of the LSE's Department of Law believes that it is no longer fit for purpose and may in fact have unintended consequences for women choosing to undergo social egg freezing.
The success of IVF is broadly related to the age of the egg as opposed to the age of the women. Therefore, if a woman freezes her eggs at the optimal clinical time – in her early 20s, before her fertility starts to decline – IVF using her own frozen eggs will be more likely to work into her late 30s and 40s, an age where many women now wish to start their family.
However, Professor Jackson argues that the ten-year limit on egg storage means that women would be ill advised to freeze eggs at this optimal time as they would be need to be destroyed before they are likely to want or benefit from using them.
Crucially, women who experience the normal age-related decline in their fertility are not 'prematurely infertile', and are therefore not eligible for an extension to the ten-year storage period. Therefore, according to Professor Jackson the storage limit 'represents an interference with her right to respect for her family life, which is neither necessary nor proportionate'.
In her paper, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Professor Jackson goes on to argue that the ten-year limit is no longer required on safety grounds, and is only maintained so that clinics are not obliged to store eggs indefinitely.
She instead suggests that the introduction of rolling time-limited extensions would be a fairer alternative.
Professor Jackson concludes her paper by saying: 'Because social egg freezing is in its infancy, we do not know what practical impact the ten-year time limit will have upon women who have frozen their eggs. If a woman has three years of storage left, at what point should she give up on meeting a suitable partner and attempt IVF with donor sperm, for example? It seems likely that women faced with the imminent destruction of their eggs will feel under pressure to use their eggs before time runs out for them, ironically perhaps creating a newly ticking non-biological clock.'
Looking to the future, she has also called for more research into 'how the ten-year time limit shapes women's decisions about the freezing and subsequent use of their eggs'.