The current law on the storage of frozen eggs, sperm, and embryos for non-medical reasons should be extended to give women more choice through their reproductive years, say leading fertility experts.
The UK legislation is no longer appropriate and severely restricts women who decide to freeze their eggs and preserve their fertility, say The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the British Fertility Society (BFS).
The calls follow the launch earlier this month by the Department of Health and Social Care of a public consultation on whether the time limit should be changed.
The statutory storage limit stands at a maximum of 10 years, after which people must choose whether to undergo fertility treatment, or have their frozen eggs, sperm, and embryos destroyed.
But those stored for medical reasons, such as cancer treatment and premature infertility, can be preserved for up to 55 years in total.
When The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was introduced, eggs couldn’t be stored effectively for longer than 10 years. But an RCOG Scientific Impact Paper concludes that frozen eggs can now be stored indefinitely without deterioration, thanks to a new freezing technique called vitrification.
Richard Anderson, professor of clinical reproductive science at the University of Edinburgh and lead author of the RCOG Scientific Impact Paper, said: “The current UK legal limit of 10 years for duration of elective egg freezing has no biological or medical basis and is against the interests of women wishing to freeze eggs at a younger, more effective age.
“Women should have the opportunity to manage their fertility and choose to have children at a time that is right for them, but this 10-year limit prevents their right to exercise this choice.”
The paper also calls for greater transparency on the part of clinics about the costs and success rates so that women can make an informed choice.
The number of women opting to freeze their eggs has tripled in the past five years, but numbers are still relatively low. And the most common age for women to freeze their eggs for treatment is 38, when the likelihood of a successful pregnancy using these eggs is much lower.
Latest data from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in 2016 show that there were 1310 egg freezing cycles in the UK and 519 cycles of treatment using frozen stored eggs for medical and other reasons.
But only around one in five (18%) IVF treatments using a woman’s own frozen eggs were successful. The live birth rate for fresh IVF treatment was 26%.
It’s essential that women are clearly informed about the likely success rates of elective egg freezing, say the RCOG and the BFS.
This is especially important, given that egg freezing for non-medical reasons is only available through the private sector and can be extremely expensive. In total, the whole process for egg freezing and thawing costs an average of £7,000-£8,000. And a single cycle of IVF can cost over £5,000.
“While often perceived as a form of insurance, we feel strongly that women undertaking egg freezing do so with a full understanding of the likelihood of success, as well as the costs and risks,” commented Professor Anderson.
Adam Balen, professor of reproductive medicine and surgery, and RCOG spokesperson added: “It seems likely that the future will see increasing numbers of women storing eggs, mostly because they are not in a relationship, but there remains a need for societal changes that support women in the workplace to have their family at a biologically optimal age if they so choose without compromising their career prospects.”
He continued: “There remains an increasing recognition of the need to improve public education about age-related changes in female fertility that should highlight the importance of men’s knowledge as well as women’s.”
Dr Jane Stewart, consultant in reproductive medicine and gynaecology and chair of The British Fertility Society, said: “Family planning is changing and many people choose to have children later in life. We wish to ensure that those who want to have a baby have the best possible chance of success.”
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at pregnancy advisory charity, bpas, said that it fully backed calls to amend the current egg storage time limit.
She added: “Our research has found that the rising cost of raising a child and concerns about the ability to combine paid employment with motherhood can act as a real barrier for those who wish to start a family.
“Extending the egg storage limit would be a step forward, but we need to see meaningful public policy changes, including extending access to three rounds of NHS-funded IVF in line with NICE guidance, to support all couples to have children at the time that is right for them.”
The consultation runs until 5 May 2020.