The purpose of the changes to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA) are to allow people who might potentially become infertile at a very young age, for example due to cancer treatment, to begin a family in their adult life. However, some commentators are concerned that the move might open up the possibility for some women to become mothers at an advanced age.
The plans are open for consultation until 30 March 2008, and are aimed at ensuring fertility legislation does not discriminate against people on the grounds of age. Currently gametes can be stored for ten years, or up until the donor is aged 55, whichever time period is shorter. A Department of Health spokesman said that the current regulations 'would prevent a man who had his sperm stored as a child prior to cancer treatment using that sperm to have a family at age 56 simply because he was aged 56'.
Fertility treatment is not available on the NHS to women over 39, and clinics that treat women over the age of 55 are at risk of losing their licences; most private clinics choose only to treat women up to the age of 45. Gedis Grudzinskas, a consultant at London Bridge Hospital, believes that the proposed changes will result in older women coming forward for treatment, arguing that 'although it seems that women of 70 can support the rigours of pregnancy, I'd be very concerned about them really having the energy to bring up a child.'
There have been some high-profile recent examples of older women using fertility treatment to have children. In 2006 Patricia Rashbrook gave birth to a child at the age of 62 after receiving fertility treatment, and was supported in her endeavour by Lord Harries, Chairman of the Ethics Committee at the HFEA. Last year a woman created a new world record when she gave birth in India at the age of 70. Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), stated that 'Zimmer frames and prams don't work together. Most people would consider this an utterly selfish distortion of nature'.
Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe said that, 'these sorts of proposals are encouraging people to see children as designer goods, rather than as a natural blessing'. The Department of Health maintained that, 'treating a patient for fertility remains a clinical decision, regardless of age'.