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Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008: Frozen Eggs Storage

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 12 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the 10-year limit on the storage of frozen eggs for social reasons under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008.

My Lords, the statutory limit on the storage of eggs is set out in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, as varied by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (Statutory Storage Period for Embryos and Gametes) Regulations 2009. The regulations make provision for storage for longer than 10 years if the patient has been rendered prematurely infertile. There are currently no plans to review these provisions.

The Minister is quite right to spell out the law, but what she did not say is that, for most women, the limit for storing eggs is only 10 years because they are not prematurely infertile. The 10-year limit was introduced, I believe, under my chairmanship, when the risks of long-term storage were unknown. Does the Minister agree with me that, as the optimum time for freezing eggs is around the age of 30, a 10-year limit for social purposes means that the eggs have to be destroyed at an age of, say, the early 40s, when a woman may despair of natural conception with a partner, having paid a lot of money for storage over those 10 years? All it takes is an amendment to the 2009 regulations, which could easily provide for longer storage for women who have not yet completed their desired family. Will the Minister encourage the department to show some compassion for those women?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point, and I recognise her argument. As an ex-chairman of the HFEA, she will know that the law is not set in stone. I am not aware that there is any consensus on what a more appropriate maximum storage limit should be, but if a strong case can be made for a new maximum limit, the Government would certainly consider a change in the law if it was needed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Genesis Research Trust, which funds research into reproductive medicine. Is the noble Baroness aware that the Minister on the Front Bench who answered my Written Question at the end of last year showed that the figures for egg freezing were as follows: at that time, 4,841 eggs had been thawed for the process of making a pregnancy, 93 pregnancies had resulted, and there were 41 live births—that is to say, even the miscarriages are not properly represented—but the overall success per egg per freezing was less than 1%. Of course, I absolutely support what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is saying about having earlier freezing, but if freezing is left too late, this is the despicable result. Can the noble Baroness ensure that the Department of Health does something about the many private clinics that charge thousands of pounds to women who have their eggs frozen and claim a 40% to 60% success rate, and that is on record?

My Lords, of course, I recognise the tremendous, world-renowned expertise that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has in this area. He asked a number of questions, and I cannot comment on the Written Answer on the numbers and figures that were given on the eggs that were frozen and thawed. However, I was interested to see the data published by HFEA in March on the ages of women freezing their eggs in 2016, which showed that roughly 67% were 35 or older. I recognise the argument that, as with every aspect of our body, eggs also get older, so the earlier they are frozen, it is potentially better. For those women freezing eggs for non-medical reasons, the 10-year storage limit would appear to provide a reasonable period for them to decide if they wish to go forward with fertility treatment. On the question of private clinics, the noble Lord is absolutely right. I am aware that clinics are advocating three or four cycles of treatment to freeze eggs. That can be very expensive, so it is important that women who want to go down that route regard the issue seriously because at the end of the day only 26% are successful.

My Lords, when the scheme was first set up, will the Minister clarify whether the reason for the 10-year limit was evidence or science based, or was it based on social determinants?

My Lords, when the 1990 Act was reviewed, the 2005 Green Paper consulted specifically and asked views on whether the time limit should be changed, and what new limit would be appropriate. There was no consensus among the responses on what a new limit should be, with a wide range of storage periods being suggested, from 10 months to 20 years. I am not aware of any consensus now of what would be a more appropriate maximum storage limit. When the 2009 regulations were put in place, they were considering the potential storage needs of adults.

My Lords, it seems to me that the Government are at sea and are having a problem with this area of regulation in two different ways. I declare an interest, as I have a niece who had cervical cancer at a young age and had her eggs harvested. She has had a full recovery and those eggs will, we hope, be put to good use. The 10-year limit does not apply to her, which seems very arbitrary, so it seems to me that the Government have to review that. Do not the Government also need to review the regulation of the private clinics because they are not treating women well? So, there are two things. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is quite right that the limit needs to be reviewed, but the private clinics also need to be reviewed. Does the noble Baroness think that that is true?

As I have said, the Government will review any legislation if there is consensus and a need for it. Currently, there is not sufficient consensus on the period for storage. On private clinics, there are HFEA guidelines that women should attend clinics now registered by it, but it is a matter of personal choice as to where women seek treatment.

My Lords, the Minister seems to suggest that the rationale for not reviewing the 10-year time limit is that there is no consensus over a particular time limit, including the 10 years, but surely this is where the Government are meant to offer leadership? Making a decision should not be about gathering a cluster of opinions and then trying to find the mean or the average of them, but to offer leadership in a situation where, clearly, a lot of problems have flowed.

My Lords, the Government are offering leadership. This is a very complex area; we have issues of ethics, medicine, the law and science all colliding together and, therefore, there has to be consensus on moving forward in some way. As I have just said, there was a consultation on this and the consensus in terms of storing eggs, sperm and indeed embryos went from anything from 10 months to 20 years. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, indicated, the clinical issues will be taken into account and, if there is greater consensus, the Government are prepared to look at this. I have already indicated that.

My Lords, a man speaks with considerable hesitation on this very sensitive subject. Does the Minister agree that part of the success of the original Act was that there were certain clear boundaries laid out in it, not least the 14-day limit for experimentation on embryos? Therefore, whatever is decided in the future, I think the spirit of clarity is essential as we go forward. I can see the case for the 10-year limit being extended, but it needs to be done in a way that is quite clear in order to protect everybody.

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right, and I have indicated that this is a very complex area that needs to be considered very carefully. Of course, we must not forget that fertility begins to decline after the age of 35, so we do need to keep these issues continually under review.