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Gametes and Embryos: Storage Limit

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the rapid implementation of their decision to extend the storage limit for gametes and embryos.

The department has been working with the regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, to ensure that it gets a chance to input into how the new scheme is implemented and that the fertility sector is properly prepared for any future legislative changes. The department has just completed a focused technical consultation that informs the final policy detail for certain categories of storage. We will bring forward legislation to enact the new policy when parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of the HFEA. For years, there has been disquiet over the arbitrary 10-year storage period for frozen eggs, which has forced women to make less than optimal decisions about their careers and fertility. My Bill to extend the period was in 2019 and the Government’s consultation closed in May 2020. In September 2021, the Government rightly responded that the period should be extended to 55 years, but that has not happened yet. Thousands of women know that the period will be extended but face the misery of seeing their eggs destroyed because it has not yet happened. The two-year pandemic extension will soon expire. Will the Government commit to making that change now by an amendment to the Health and Care Bill or by regulation? Will they put a moratorium on the destruction of any frozen eggs right away?

The Government are still considering the responses from the technical consultation in terms of extension of storage, but as I said previously, and I hope the noble Baroness will be assured by this, we hope to bring forward legislation to enact a new policy when parliamentary time allows. If an amendment is laid, we will give it due consideration.

My Lords, accurate information about the benefits, risks and success rates of egg freezing is essential to enable women to make their own decision. What progress is being made by the Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority to investigate whether the provision of information is done accurately and ethically?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising this very important issue, because not everyone is aware of the biological facts around fertility, particularly the decline of fertility with age. If a woman freezes her eggs in her 20s, she has a higher chance of success than if she does it in her 30s. In fact, while IVF treatment has improved over the years, the success rates of IVF are still only around 30%, so it is important that as many women and couples know as much as possible. On the detailed questions that she asked, I will write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I am enormously encouraged by the Minister’s warm words and look forward to holding him to account for them. We know that women have a much better success rate when freezing their eggs at a younger age. However, the Minister knows that there are also proposals to introduce requirements to renew storage permissions every 10 years. What arrangements is the Minister considering to put in place to ensure that this does not become a bureaucratic nightmare and does not create disappointment for those who somehow do not keep up to date?

I thank my noble friend for his work on the subject when he was the responsible Minister to help change the policy so that all people, regardless of medical need, may benefit from greater choice about when to start their family. The 10-year renewal periods will be put in place to give people the opportunity to decide whether they wish to continue with their storage of gametes or embryos. The department is currently working with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to set out the plans for detailed implementation, including on how the renewal periods should be handled by fertility clinics to ensure that they work.

Fertility clinics will be expected to contact people storing their gametes or embryos a year before a renewal period has ended, so there would be 12 months’ notice. In addition, people will have a six-month grace period following the expiry of any renewal period, in which they can get in touch with clinics to re-engage storage if they wish. I am sorry that I am going on longer than usual, but this is an important issue. It is our view that we would provide an appropriate amount of time for clinics to contact their patients, and for patients to decide what they wish to do with their gametes or embryos in storage.

My Lords, I return to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, because we need some clarity here. For some people, months count. They will be having their eggs destroyed now, in the next few months. Therefore, while I congratulate the Government on the regulations that added two years to the 10-year period in recognition of the need to provide an extension during the pandemic, the Minister needs to be absolutely clear because time is fast running out. Are the Government going to provide interim transitional arrangements before the legislation is before the House? From these Benches, we are very keen and across the House there is an enormous amount of support for this to happen. Frankly, if the Minister brings forward the regulations tomorrow, they will go through.

I thank the noble Baroness for that very kind offer, but we have already stated that it is the Government’s intention that no one misses out on the opportunity to extend the storage of their eggs, sperm or embryos. As she will be aware, in 2020 in light of the Covid pandemic, we took steps to extend the storage. We are currently considering options to make sure that no one misses out on the benefits of the new policy. Given the detailed consultation we have just been through, we hope to announce details in due course. Of course, if an amendment is laid to the forthcoming Health and Care Bill, we will consider it.

My Lords, the Minister will have seen in the press today the case of Megan and Whitney Bacon-Evans, a lesbian couple required to undergo 12 cycles of treatment before they can access NHS-funded fertility treatment. In effect, that makes it impossible for them to access safe, well-regulated healthcare in this country. That is contrary to the aims of the Act under which lesbians were enabled to access fertility treatment, so will the Government move to stop it?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point about same-sex couples’ access to insemination services. In England, details of the local fertility services are determined by the clinical commissioning groups, which take account of the NICE fertility guidelines. These were updated in 2013 to include provision for female same-sex couples who have demonstrated a clinical infertility. The criteria in the guidelines were developed as a way of achieving equivalence between opposite-sex and male or female same-sex couples. However, it is clear that the NICE guidelines are now outdated, and the department has therefore agreed with NICE to start a review of these fertility guidelines. We want the same thing as the noble Baroness: equality.