By Ilaria Bertini
On 1 July 2022 the UK Government announced a change in the law on frozen storage of gametes and embryos, with the full support of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). According to the Health and Care Act 2022, fertility patients will now be able to store both embryos and gametes for up to 55 years, providing their consent is given every 10 years, while donors can store their eggs, sperm and embryos for the same amount of time without the need to re-consent every decade. Gametes and embryos can also remain stored for 10 years after the patient’s death if he or she has previously consented to their use post-mortem.
Prior to this change, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990, as amended by the HFE Act 2008, set 10 years as the usual storage time limit for gametes and embryos in all circumstances except where they were stored for medical reasons, such as premature infertility. In fact, in this circumstance the storage limit was up to 55 years. During the Covid-19 emergency the HFEA introduced the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Statutory Storage Period for Embryos and Gametes) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 in order to allow an extension of two years storage to the standard 10 years for gametes and embryos in storage on 1 July 2020.
According to the HFEA, increasing the statutory time limit will ensure, first, equity for all patients. This change in the law will allow patients to start harvesting their eggs very early in their 20s (so the best eggs in terms of quality and quantity) to give them the opportunity to widen their reproductive choices. People will have longer to decide about having children, and there will be a likely increase in the age of parents who will no longer have to commit to the 10-year deadline. There will also be an increase in availability of donor gametes and embryos since their storage time will rise drastically. This will impact fertility clinics which will be seeing a higher demand on their services on several fronts.
However, there remain very real drawbacks in relation to IVF in general, and donor conception in particular.
Given that there is no statutory age limit for undergoing IVF a woman whose eggs were harvested in her 20s, including for social reasons, might carry a pregnancy at an advanced age with an increased risk for both the mother and the baby. A recent cohort study on adverse pregnancy outcome in older mothers – led by Alex Heazell, Professor of Obstetrics at the University of Manchester and Honorary Consultant Obstetrician at Saint Mary’s Hospital (London) – observes that advanced maternal age (>35 years) is associated among other factors with higher rates of stillbirth, fetal growth restriction and pre-eclampsia.
A couple might also decide to create and/or store their embryos for potential use decades later, instead of trying to get pregnant right away. The likelihood that IVF children will be conceived and/or born after the death of one parent will increase, giving rise to generations of children bereaved before they are born. Furthermore, if fertility treatments take place posthumously, the deceased parent can be named on the birth certificate as a parent, but not for all legal purposes such as property rights and inheritance.
Donor offspring will also have a high chance of never meeting their donor, despite their legal right to know the donor’s identity, as he or she may already be deceased. In fact, since 1 April 2005 a person aged 18 conceived through IVF can obtain from the HFEA information about her or his origin (whether it involved donated gametes or embryos) and the donor’s identity (if the donor provided the information after 31 March 2005). There may also be a huge age gap between the offspring and some of their half siblings, including the donor’s social children, although meeting siblings is of interest to many donor-conceived people, including young people who often value the relationships they form. This might stretch further the new kinds of kinship moulded by assisted reproductive technologies. In fact, from now on donor-conceived children might be related to donor siblings connected via social platforms but also with an age gap which is potentially equal to the one between grandparents and their grandchildren. Might it be possible to admit here that law and technology have gone too far?
To conclude, the question raised by the new change in the law is, then, whether this apparently “inclusive” move from the UK Government will really benefit equally all the actors involved and whether fertility clinics are prepared to face all the consequences of this change in the law.
Author: Ilaria Bertini
Affiliations: Bios Centre (UK)
Competing interests: none
Social media accounts of post author: @drilariabertini, Facebook