From 10 years to 55: Storage period of embryos extended

When going through fertility treatment, some people undergoing the process can often end up with left over embryos after their IVF cycle. To preserve those embryos, some people decide to freeze them for use in later treatment – most notably in the event that IVF treatment has not been successful, or they want to try for another child in the future. 

Alternatively, embryos can be donated to research, used for training or for someone else.  

Why would people want to freeze their embryos?  

Sometimes, people wish to freeze their embryos due to having to undergo medical treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This type of treatment carries a risk of increasing infertility rates, especially when administered in high doses, so freezing embryos for a later date can provide people with peace of mind that they may still have the opportunity to have a family in the future.  

Employment is also a common reason for why some people choose to freeze their embryos. For example, if you work in the British Armed Forces and you are concerned that you may suffer an injury, freezing embryos could preserve fertility.  

The earlier the embryos are frozen, the better chance of a healthy pregnancy when that person is ready to undergo their journey. For this reason, many people are starting to look at freezing their embryos at a younger age.   

Between 2015 and 2019, the total number of cycles in which eggs were frozen for a person’s own use increased by 118%, taking the total number from 1269 to 2761). In 2019, over one in three patients who were freezing eggs were under 35 (888 out of 2379, equating to 37%)1. 

How long can you store embryos? 

Previously, in accordance with Section 14 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, no gametes, embryos or human admixed embryos were to be kept in storage for longer than the statutory storage period – 10 years. If they were still stored at the end of that period, they were allowed to perish. A person’s gametes were not to be kept in storage unless there was effective consent by them specific to that storage and the gametes were stored in accordance with that consent. The legislative provision allowing an extension from the 10 years was usually i.e., because the person was likely to become or was prematurely infertile.  

This 10-year limit seemed too restrictive, particularly for young people who may have wanted to freeze their embryos for a longer period and were unable to do so. The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (RCOG) Scientific Impact Paper, dated February 2020, stated the statutory limit had ‘no biological or medical basis against the interests of women wishing to freeze eggs at a younger, more effective age.’2 The storage limit was not in line with treating everyone equal or with reproductive choice.  

In response to the Department for Health and Social Care public consultation, on the 1st July 2022 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority supported the amendment of legislation to increase the 10 year storage limit to 55 years. Accordingly, Schedule 17 of the Health and Care Act 2022 made amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to state that embryos must not be kept in storage for treatment purposes for longer than such period not exceeding 55 years beginning on the day which it is first kept as the licence may specify.  

This means that people can now store their embryos for their own treatment for over five times longer than previously allowed, providing that they renew their consent every 10 years, and that the clinic has offered them counselling before they consent to every additional 10 years’ storage.  

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