23 July 2020
Outdated time limits on frozen eggs prolong the ticking fertility clock
In what should be a further boost to extending women's fertility choices, health secretary Matt Hancock hinted in a web-chat with the professional women's member's club Allbright that he was open to the possibility of securing NHS funding for women in their early 30s who want to freeze their eggs.
According to esteemed Professor Geeta Nargund (lead consultant for reproductive medicine St George’s NHS Trust and medical director of CREATE fertility), this would actually save the NHS money long-term by reducing the number of women in their late 30s, early 40s relying on multiple rounds of NHS-funded IVF, when their chances of success are lower because of their age, and for which funding is always under threat.
This, in conjunction with the improved technique of vitrification (flash freezing) and a growing number of tech companies such as Google offering privately-funded egg freezing as part of woman's employment package, should be good news for women concerned about their choices as to when, or if, to have children.
However, these apparent advances in women's fertility choices continued to be undermined by the arbitrary 10-year storage limit under UK law for eggs frozen for 'non-medical' reasons, temporarily extended to 12 years because of delays caused by Covid. Women who freeze their eggs for medical reasons, such as undergoing certain chemotherapies, are permitted a 55-year limit.
For optimum success, a woman should freeze her eggs between 28 and 32. Under the current law, this would mean she's out of time to use them by her early 40s, perhaps exactly when she feels at her most ready to have a child, particularly if she's climbed the corporate tech ladder and taken advantage of the egg-freezing benefit offered to her.
If a woman isn't ready to use her eggs at the end of the now 12-year storage period, she must decide either to have her eggs destroyed, or to pay to transfer them to a fertility clinic overseas and face fertility treatment abroad later on, thereby maintaining the pressure of the fertility ticking clock that has shaped women's lives for so long.
In other words, the law is actually discouraging women from freezing their eggs at the age when they are at their most and fertile and therefore have the most chance of success, and forcing them to wait until they're older, when they have even less chance of success since egg quality begins to decline at 35.
Currently, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the most common age for women to freeze their eggs for treatment is 38, with some choosing to do so in their 40s, when the likelihood of a future pregnancy is very slim.
Despite advancing technology such as vitrification, the success rate from egg freezing is still relatively low, so does not guarantee peace of mind for women at any age looking to preserve their fertility.
In February this year, the Government did finally announce it would consult and reconsider the standard limit, most sensibly for a further 10 years. At least if the legal time bomb was removed, it would be one less obstacle for women to overcome in the never-ending challenge to define one's own reproductive choices.
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