In the UK, human gametes (reproductive cells) can be frozen in a clinical setting for two reasons: medical, or 'social'.
For individuals undergoing treatment that may impact their fertility: i.e. cancer or other hormonal treatment, or if they are donating their gametes for medical research, they can consent to their gametes being stored for up to 55 years. Freezing human gametes for this reason is deemed medical.
Individuals wishing to preserve the option of having their own biological children at a future point, may also opt to freeze their gametes and this falls under the category of social reasons.
Is a decade long enough?
After 10-years, gametes stored for social reasons must be either fertilised and refrozen as embryos, or, destroyed. People who have chosen to freeze their gametes to preserve the option of having their own biological children, pending finding a partner they wish to have children with, can be left with a difficult decision a decade down the line.
Once the 10-year period has prescribed, it is possible that the only viable option may be to consider donor sperm to create embryos, if they wish to preserve their option of biological parenthood from their frozen gametes
Is the time restriction on egg storage arbitrary?
The 10-year rule for egg storage where freezing gametes is for social reasons is a subject of strong debate and criticism. The criticism comes from the fact that time sensitivities apply to eggs - individuals are born with a finite amount of eggs and egg quality deteriorates as a person ages. Whereas with sperm, research shows the same rules do not apply.
Campaigners want to see improved medical storage techniques to preserve eggs stored for longer.
Last year, the UK Government held a Consultation as part of which, it is questioned whether the 10-year rule should be changed. The outcome of the Consultation is eagerly anticipated – a decision to increase the 10-year rule would be welcomed by many as a step towards greater 'fertility equality'.
What are the rules on frozen embryos?
Embryos can be frozen and stored typically for 10 years (but up to 55 years in certain circumstances).
What happens if a couple create embryos and subsequently separate?
The use of a frozen embryo following a couple separating is a complex and sensitive area of the law, particularly where one party still wishes to use the embryo(s) to become a parent and the other does not.
Can one donor withdraw consent?
Either gamete donor can vary or withdraw their consent to the use of the embryo before the embryo is used in treatment or research. This means that the embryo can no longer be used in treatment.
A 'cooling-off' period of one year ordinarily applies to the use or destruction of a frozen embryo following one donor withdrawing consent. At the end of this period, if the party still does not want the embryo to be used, the embryo would be destroyed. It is important to have the withdrawal of consent properly documented with the clinic.