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Ten-year egg-freezing limit should be changed

12 September 2016
Appeared in BioNews 868

Following the increase in 'social' egg freezing, the ten-year time limit on the storage of human eggs should be removed, according to a leading academic at the London School of Economics.

The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, updated in 2008, allows eggs to be stored for up to ten years. The limit was originally introduced because the effects of longer-term storage were unknown, and extensions are only allowed for medical reasons such as those undergoing premature infertility.

Yet following the development of a new fast-freezing technique known as vitrification, many fertility clinics are now beginning to offer women the option of 'social' egg freezing, which allows women to freeze their eggs as a way to delay motherhood until a later age, when becoming pregnant becomes harder due to the natural age-related decline in fertility.

However, after examining the implications of the statutory time limit in the context of social egg freezing, Professor Emily Jackson of the LSE's Department of Law believes that it is no longer fit for purpose and may in fact have unintended consequences for women choosing to undergo social egg freezing.

The success of IVF is broadly related to the age of the egg as opposed to the age of the women. Therefore, if a woman freezes her eggs at the optimal clinical time – in her early 20s, before her fertility starts to decline – IVF using her own frozen eggs will be more likely to work into her late 30s and 40s, an age where many women now wish to start their family.

However, Professor Jackson argues that the ten-year limit on egg storage means that women would be ill advised to freeze eggs at this optimal time as they would be need to be destroyed before they are likely to want or benefit from using them.

Crucially, women who experience the normal age-related decline in their fertility are not 'prematurely infertile', and are therefore not eligible for an extension to the ten-year storage period. Therefore, according to Professor Jackson the storage limit 'represents an interference with her right to respect for her family life, which is neither necessary nor proportionate'.

In her paper, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Professor Jackson goes on to argue that the ten-year limit is no longer required on safety grounds, and is only maintained so that clinics are not obliged to store eggs indefinitely. 

She instead suggests that the introduction of rolling time-limited extensions would be a fairer alternative.

Professor Jackson concludes her paper by saying: 'Because social egg freezing is in its infancy, we do not know what practical impact the ten-year time limit will have upon women who have frozen their eggs. If a woman has three years of storage left, at what point should she give up on meeting a suitable partner and attempt IVF with donor sperm, for example? It seems likely that women faced with the imminent destruction of their eggs will feel under pressure to use their eggs before time runs out for them, ironically perhaps creating a newly ticking non-biological clock.'

Looking to the future, she has also called for more research into 'how the ten-year time limit shapes women's decisions about the freezing and subsequent use of their eggs'.

‘Social’ egg freezing and the UK's statutory storage time limits
Journal of Medical Ethics |  23 September 2016
Ten year limit on human egg freezing should be scrapped
LSE |  8 September 2016
28 January 2019 - by Dr Katie Howe 
Fertility experts are campaigning for the UK government to review current legislation which means women who freeze their eggs must use them within 10 years...
23 April 2018 - by Professor Joyce Harper, Dr Kylie Baldwin, Dr Lucy Van de Wiel and Professor Jacky Boivin 
In the UK, the storage limit for eggs frozen for social reasons is currently limited to ten years: too short for healthy young women wanting to preserve their opportunities to conceive later in life...
3 April 2017 - by Jamie Rickman 
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31 October 2016 - by Sarah Norcross 
The Progress Educational Trust's event on preserving fertility was held in Edinburgh on 25 October...
30 September 2016 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
Twelve families in South Australia have lost embryos after a power outage compromised the incubators that the embryos were being stored in...
4 April 2016 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Pregnancy and live birth rates following IVF have continued to increase as the multiple-birth rate declines, according to the latest figures released by the HFEA...
18 November 2014 - by Siobhan Chan 
By 2050, most women will opt to conceive through IVF using cryopreserved eggs and sperm, meaning that sex will become 'purely recreational', an eminent scientist has claimed...
23 April 2012 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy 
Women may soon be given the option of banking their ovarian tissue if a new clinic to offer the procedure opens in the UK. The technique allows women to freeze ovarian tissue containing eggs to use at a later date and could assist cancer patients and other women who hope to have children later in life....
12 July 2010 - by Dr Tamara Hirsch 
More than half of US fertility clinics are now prepared to 'freeze' eggs, a new study has revealed. This option was traditionally reserved for women undergoing cancer therapy or for other medical reasons...
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