We at the Progress Educational Trust (PET) are delighted that our #ExtendTheLimit campaign, to extend the ten-year storage limit for eggs frozen for non-medical or 'social' reasons, has succeeded – insofar as it now has Government backing (as reported elsewhere on BioNews today).
The UK Government has stated that it plans to extend the maximum storage limit for social egg freezing from ten years to 55 years. This is a very welcome development, and one which will also apply to sperm and embryos – after all, using present-day technology, gametes and embryos are as fit for purpose after 55 years on ice as they are after ten.
Current storage arrangements originated in a time when assisted conception was still novel, and when the cryopreservation of gametes and embryos was still largely experimental. Since the laws governing gamete and embryo storage were drafted, the science of cryopreservation has changed drastically, as have society's attitudes towards fertility preservation and later motherhood. It is ironic, then, that law in this area has itself been seemingly cryopreserved for rather too long.
Today's announcement by the Government follows last year's public consultation on statutory storage limits. One of the ten key principles we set out in our response to that consultation (see BioNews 1046) was that there should be no legal distinction between storage for medical reasons and storage for non-medical reasons, because one patient group should not be characterised as more or less deserving than another. Thankfully, it seems that this distinction will indeed be removed in future, and that the same storage rules will apply across the board.
This in turn will remove the current need to determine who is, or may become, 'prematurely' infertile in relation to storage of gametes or embryos. 'Premature infertility' is a contentious and ill-defined concept at the best of times, with no fixed definition in medicine or in law. References to patients being or becoming 'prematurely infertile' therefore deserve to be made obsolete, at least in the context of storage limits.
Meanwhile, the Government has signalled its intention to retain – indeed, to strengthen – a requirement for patients to renew their consent to storage every ten years. PET welcomes this in principle, but will reserve judgment on how this is implemented until further details are revealed.
Patients must be confident that, if they adhere to the specified renewal process, then ongoing storage of their gametes or embryos is secure. For their part, clinics must be confident that if they adhere to the specified renewal process, and if renewal and reaffirmation are not forthcoming from the patient, then the clinic will eventually be permitted to destroy stored gametes or embryos (rather than being obliged to continue storing them in the absence of clarification from the patient).
Another of our ten key principles – indeed, the first one we set out – was that law and regulation that govern the freezing and storage of gametes and embryos should be drastically simplified. Whether this will come to pass is yet to be seen, but we hope that the Government and the HFEA will seize the opportunity to make some bold changes. PET believes that clinics should not need to consult lawyers routinely in order to make sure they are complying with law and regulation, especially when the associated legal fees will ultimately be passed on to patients.
While we are thrilled to have reached this major milestone, we will not be satisfied until the changes announced today are on the statute book. This needs to happen sooner rather than later, so that no one is disadvantaged by the vagaries of the Parliamentary timetable. We are poised to scrutinise the details of policy in this area, to ensure that we end up with something workable that is a good fit for professionals and patients alike. PET will be holding an event soon to discuss what this should look like, so be sure to keep an eye out for details in BioNews and on our social media channels.
Finally, many thanks to Sharon Jones (who has been the patient face of the #ExtendTheLimit campaign campaign) and to Baroness Ruth Deech (who has kept this issue on Parliament's radar). Thanks also to those of you who donated to PET, so that we could carry out this campaigning work. We still need your support, so please donate what you can to help us finish what we've started and change the law.