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Revised rules allow couples to store embryos for longer

14 September 2009
Appeared in BioNews 525

The UK Government has introduced changes to allow individuals whose embryos have been frozen for over five years before the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 2008 comes into force on 1 October 2009 to store them for longer. Before the changes were made, the Act stipulated that such embryos must be destroyed, but Health Minister Gillian Merron stepped in to make a supplementary provision to the Act to extend the time limit for storage to a total of ten years. 

'We are updating the law to allow women to store their embryos for longer than the current five years', said Merron, adding that 'a small number of women will have reached the five-year limit before October 1 and without the action we are taking, would have had their embryos destroyed. They will now be able to store them for longer'.

Under the previous version of the HFE Act, any embryos stored after 1 October 2004 would have been able to be kept for up to 55 years, but for couples who had stored embryos before this date only those who did not require their implantation to be in a surrogate were able to apply for an extension of time. The last-minute changes came after this potential inequity was highlighted by the cases of a number of couples who faced having their embryos destroyed even though it was the last chance for them to conceive children of their own. Recently, Melanie and Robert Galdwin from Gloucestershire instructed solicitors Natalie Gamble and Louisa Ghevaert to assist them in challenging the Act. Mrs Gladwin decided to store the embryos before becoming infertile following treatment for cervical cancer. She petitioned the Prime Minister just 24 hours before the changes were announced. 'Their circumstances are morally straightforward but legally very complex', said Merron, adding: 'We have been urgently seeking ways to help them and I am very pleased to be able to give them hope by taking this common-sense action'.

Gamble and Ghevaert said it was important that the changes would go beyond merely extending the storage period for a few years. 'We will be looking very closely at the proposals to confirm that couples like Robert and Melanie will be able to extend their chance of having a much-wanted child for as long as possible, and not just for a few more years', they said. Mrs Gladwin said she was grateful for the extension of time for the time being: 'We’re absolutely over the moon. It's a huge weight off our shoulders and totally unexpected', she said, continuing: 'At the moment we're unsure whether we'll be allowed to apply for an extension. But four years is better than three weeks'.

Professor Lisa Jardine, Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said: 'This will be an enormous relief to all of those people who faced the heartbreak of seeing their embryos destroyed, all because of a matter of timing. We will be contacting clinics immediately so they can inform the patients concerned and make appropriate arrangements for the continued storage of their embryos'. According to the HFEA, over 48,000 couples froze embryos in Britain in 2007.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Couple's embryo appeal goes to PM
BBC News |  8 September 2009
Couple win battle to save frozen embryos from destruction
The Times |  10 September 2009
Embryo storage u-turn allows couples chance of parenthood
The Daily Telegraph |  9 September 2009
Extension given for embryo storage
Press Association |  10 September 2009
New rules extend embryo storage
Nursing in Practice |  10 September 2009
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Supplementary Provision) Order 2009
Office of Public Sector Information |  9 September 2009
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