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Egg, sperm and embryo storage limits: ten key principles

11 May 2020
By Sarah Norcross
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 1046

The Progress Educational Trust (PET) – the charity that publishes BioNews – is delighted that its #ExtendTheLimit petition has received more than 800 signatures to date.

This petition, and our accompanying #ExtendTheLimit campaign, call on the UK government to extend the ten-year storage limit for eggs frozen for non-medical or 'social' reasons. We welcome the government's announcement of a temporary two-year extension to the limit (see BioNews 1044) – to help patients with eggs, sperm or embryos in storage amid the coronavirus pandemic – but the need for a permanent extension remains.

In addition to our campaign, we have also responded in detail to the government's recent consultation on storage limits. Whereas our campaign simply calls for the ten-year egg storage limit to be extended, in our consultation response we have taken the opportunity to consider the whole area of egg, sperm and embryo storage in its entirety, and to propose a number of thoroughgoing changes to UK law.

Drawing on our many years of work and advocacy in this area, we have developed ten key principles which have informed our answers to the government's consultation questions. Our consultation response can be read in full here and our ten principles are as follows.

  1. The law and regulation that govern the freezing and storage of eggs, sperm and embryos should be drastically simplified.

  2. The same rules should apply to eggs, sperm and embryos. The government should also be mindful of the existence and use of other reproductive bodily materials, such as gonadal tissue and gamete precursor cells, and should be clear and consistent in regulating their storage and use.

  3. The same rules should apply to all patients – regardless of their reasons for storing eggs, sperm or embryos, and regardless of their sex or gender.

  4. The distinction between storage for medical reasons and storage for non-medical reasons should be removed from law and regulation in this area. One patient group should not be characterised as more or less deserving than another.

  5. 'Premature infertility' is a contentious and poorly defined concept. References to patients being or becoming 'prematurely infertile' are therefore unsuitable for inclusion in law or regulation, and should be removed.

  6. It is for clinicians to judge whether people requesting fertility treatment should be treated. A clinician's judgment on the matter is informed by their individual expertise and experience, by the expertise and experience of their colleagues and professional bodies, and by laws and regulations that apply to medicine in general (rather than fertility in particular).

  7. In addition to the factors informing clinical judgment described above, established fertility law requires clinicians to take account of 'the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment' before providing a woman with 'treatment services'. Reform of fertility law in relation to egg, sperm and embryo storage should not be used as a pretext to add further welfare considerations to this requirement, or to preempt the outcome of clinical judgments.

  8. A patient's decision to freeze and store eggs, sperm or embryos, and a patient's decision to use stored eggs, sperm or embryos in order to try to achieve a pregnancy, are two very different junctures in the fertility treatment journey and should not be conflated. Clinicians make distinct judgments in relation to these two different junctures. A clinician cannot make a final judgment about whether to try to establish a pregnancy until a patient expresses a wish to use stored eggs, sperm or embryos.

  9. If and when patients should experience difficulty choosing what should happen to their stored eggs, sperm or embryos, legal limits on storage periods are not an appropriate means of addressing this. Furthermore, whether and on what terms storage is publicly funded – or should be – is a completely separate matter from whether fertility law should set temporal limits on storage.

  10. Any changes made to the law in this area must apply retrospectively as well as prospectively. Transitional provisions should be made to accommodate people whose eggs, sperm or embryos are already in storage, particularly women who have stored their eggs for non-medical reasons.

We hope that anyone making policy or campaigning in this area will find these principles thought-provoking and useful. We also urge everyone – whether they agree with all of these principles or not – to sign and share our #ExtendTheLimit petition here.

If possible, please post a comment when you sign our petition (you need to be logged in to to do this but creating an account is easy). Comments by signatories add weight and appeal to the petition, making our message – and yours – more compelling.

Finally, many thanks to those of you who have donated to PET during the pandemic, so that we can continue campaigning. We appreciate that times are difficult and uncertain for many of you at the moment, but please donate what you can to our appeal to help us change the law.

#ExtendTheLimit petition
Progress Educational Trust |  6 May 2020
Gamete and embryo storage limits: consultation response
Progress Educational Trust |  1 May 2020
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