The British government has just extended the period from which gametes (eggs and sperm) and embryos can be stored from ten years to 55 years. Although this change is likely to be welcomed by people seeking fertility treatment, it could have important implications for egg and sperm donors.
A growing number of people in the UK are choosing to freeze their eggs, sperm and embryos for use in their own fertility treatment. Previously, the storage limit was ten years – although extensions were allowed for people who could prove a medical need (such as premature infertility) to 55 years.
But many felt that the storage limits limited the choices of people freezing eggs and sperm for their own fertility treatment. If they could not give a medical reason to extend the storage period, these gametes would have to be destroyed after ten years.
Cryopreservation techniques – which involve freezing gametes to preserve them – have also improved significantly since the previous storage limits were set. Studies now show that eggs frozen with current preservation techniques are more likely to develop in the same way as fresh eggs. Pregnancy rates of frozen embryos are also equivalent to those using fresh embryo transfer. As such, there is no longer a scientific reason why storage should be limited to a maximum of ten years.
Following the launch of a public consultation in February 2020, the government has now enacted legislation to extend the storage limit for all (regardless of medical need) to 55 years.
Following the change to the storage limit (which took effect on July 1), people will now have to give permission every ten years to continue storing their gametes and embryos for use in their own fertility treatment. However, egg and sperm donors who do not seek fertility treatment will not be asked to renew permission every ten years – although they will be able to specify in advance whether they want to keep their donation for up to 55 years or not.
There are potentially significant consequences of these new storage times for both donors and children born from donated eggs or sperm. Although donors are already being offered counseling to make sure they are comfortable with what they are going to do, counseling will now need to address issues arising from the extended storage period.
The most important of these issues is that some donors’ eggs or sperm will be available for use over a significantly longer period of time than under the previous rules. The obligation that clinics have to ensure that donors fully understand the implications of their decision will become even more important as this extension of downtime is implemented.
For example, if a person donates sperm at the age of 35 and their sperm is stored for 55 years, children can be born from that donation when the donor is 90 years old. It also means that, for the children born out of that person’s donation, they can have donor siblings who are older than their parents.
People conceived by a donor should be aware of the possibility that their donor may be a very elderly person – or already deceased – and that they may have donor siblings, and possibly nieces and nephews, who significantly older than they are.
This change occurs in the context that, since the law was changed in April 2005, donors conceived at age 18 are entitled to find out who their donor was.
Fertility experts are also concerned about the speed with which these potentially far-reaching changes are taking effect – leaving little time for them to prepare. Although the changes have already taken effect, new guidance must still be accepted in fertility clinics, and training and education provided to staff. Many clinics also could not provide up-to-date advice to donors. It is essential to ensure that everyone fully understands what they are agreeing to.
It is also important to ensure that people seeking fertility treatment with donated eggs and sperm are fully informed about the implications that changes in the storage limit may have to start a family in this way. Although the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology already has information available on what to consider when donating fertility treatment with donated gametes, it will be important for fertility clinics in the UK to produce their own information that reflects the changes in storage limits.
The consequences of this change in the law will play out over many years. There are clearly significant benefits associated with extending the maximum storage period of eggs and sperm for those who need to use it in their treatment. But attention will have to be paid – sooner rather than later – to the implications of these changes for gamete donors and donors.
Caroline AB Redhead is a research fellow at the Center for Social Ethics and Policy at the University of Manchester. Jackson Kirkman-Brown is a Reader in Human Reproductive Biology at the University of Birmingham.
Leah Gilman is a Research Fellow at the Center for Social Ethics and Policy at the University of Manchester. Lucy Frith is a reader, Bioethics at the University of Manchester.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.