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HFEA supports a move towards a longer storage period for fertility patients

1 June 2020
By Emily Tiemann
Regulatory Policy Manager, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
Appeared in BioNews 1049

We have welcomed the recent Department for Health and Social Care consultation on storage limits at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), as we recognise it is time for a change to the laws to accommodate the reproductive choices of fertility patients.

Our consultation response proposes a framework that would allow patients who need to store their eggs, sperm or embryos for longer than ten years to be able to do so, particularly in cases where women chose to store their eggs at a young age in order to preserve their fertility and will thus need to store them for longer than the current ten-year limit.

The current law of storing gametes or embryos for a maximum of ten years applies to most people, and is usually long enough for their treatment. However, for a growing number of people the ten-year limit can be too restrictive and can negatively impact their reproductive choices. There is no medical reason why the ten-year limit should remain, as freezing techniques and the nature of family formations have changed.

The current law relating to storage is complicated, as the system separates people into two groups; those who can only store for up to ten years (eg because they are not yet ready to start a family) and those who can store for up to 55 years (eg because of cancer treatment leading to premature infertility). We know that there are many queries that are difficult to answer, and the requirement for clinics to demonstrate 'premature infertility' has also proven tricky over the years, leading to variable practice and outcomes for patients.

However, some clinics have expressed practical concerns over what would happen if the law changed to allow more people to store for longer. Our consultation response sets out why we think the current restrictions should be changed and how they might work in practice.

We want to balance the wishes of some patients to store for longer with any practical difficulties: an approach which allows all patients the option to extend the storage of their gametes or embryos beyond ten years, up to a maximum of 55 years. To help prevent loss of contact with patients, clinics should 'check in' with them at the end of their initial ten-year storage period to seek their consent for storage to continue, and after each subsequent ten-year period. We propose the conditions that should be met for patients to store up to 55 years are:

  • new written consent to storage every ten years;  
  • confirmation that they are storing because they are intending to use the gametes or embryos in their own treatment or in their partner's treatment (including surrogacy arrangements); and
  • an offer of counselling is made before every additional consent.

We believe that this framework will balance the interests of those patients who would benefit from an increase in the storage periods with the practical concerns from a clinic perspective. Any new system should be as simple as possible for clinics to comply with, and for patients to understand.

The full HFEA response to the consultation is available to view here.

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