If a woman chooses to freeze her eggs, currently, they can only be stored for 10 years in almost all circumstances – but that could be about to change.
Storage limits for eggs, sperm and embryos will be increased to a maximum of 55 years under proposed plans by the UK government to give people greater choice over when to start a family.
Under the current system, prospective parents who undergo so-called “social egg freezing” must decide whether to undergo fertility treatment or have the cells destroyed after 10 years. The only exception is for cancer patients, who are allowed to store frozen eggs for up to 55 years.
Doctors have argued that the current limit is too restrictive and not based in science, saying the storage time limit should be the same for all patients, regardless of circumstance.
The proposals, which follow a public consultation launched last year, will need approval by parliament before they come into effect. Here’s why it matters.
The law currently dissuades women from freezing eggs at the optimal time
The earlier a woman freezes her eggs, the more likely she is to have successful treatment. As Dr Victoria Walker, fertility expert at Institut Marques, previously told HuffPost UK: “The younger the patient is, the better the survival rate and quality of the eggs.”
Dr Kylie Baldwin, from De Montfort University, explained that the law currently dissuades women from freezing their eggs at the biologically optimal time.
“Should a 28-year-old woman freeze her eggs, those eggs will need to be used or destroyed by the time she is 38, which is potentially right when she may need them the most,” she said.
Egg freezing techniques have improved
Research from the Royal College of Obstetricians has suggested that frozen eggs can be stored indefinitely without deterioration, thanks to a modern freezing technique.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “The current storage arrangements can be severely restrictive for those making the important decision about when to start a family, and this new legislation will help turn off the ticking clock in the back of people’s minds.
“Technological breakthroughs – including in egg freezing – have changed the equation in recent years and it’s only right that this progress puts more power into the hands of potential parents.
“By making these changes, we are going to take a huge step forwards – not just for giving people greater freedom over their fertility, but for equality too.”
But it’s not a fertility guarantee
The leading patient fertility charity, Fertility Network UK, welcomes the proposed changes, but wants to ensure patients know that freezing eggs is not a fertility guarantee.
“These proposed changes will give people greater reproductive choice and may, in the future, reduce the number of people who face the devastation that infertility wreaks,” chief executive Gwenda Burns said.
“However, it is important to say that freezing gametes is not a fertility insurance policy – there is no guarantee that eggs or sperm frozen now will result in a healthy baby years in the future. Fertility clinics must always be clear with prospective clients about this.”
According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – the fertility treatment regulator – egg freezing technology is changing so rapidly, historical data can’t be used to determine success rates. Instead, patients are recommended to look at IVF success rates for people in their age bracket with the same reason for infertility, to see the closest indicator. A full breakdown by age can be seen here, but success varies from 19% to 32%.
It might get even more expensive
Although egg freezing is the fastest growing fertility treatment in the UK, the overall number of women conceiving from frozen eggs each year is still small. It’s an invasive procedure – and the price excludes many women. If the storage limit is extended, storage costs are likely to become even higher.
Currently, the average cost of collecting and freezing your eggs is £3,350, with medication costing an added £500-£1,500, according to the HFEA. Storage costs (of up to 10 years) are extra and tend to be between £125 and £350 per year. Thawing eggs and transferring them to the womb costs an average of £2,500. So, the whole process for egg freezing and thawing currently costs an average of £7,000 to £8,000.
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