‘Should I freeze my eggs’ is a question many women consider and for many different reasons. Perhaps they have not found the right partner or they are at a particular stage in their life when they are simply not ready for a child, but at the same time, do not wish to miss the opportunity of producing and storing eggs before their biological clock gets the best of them, or before the quality of their eggs degrade making it harder to become pregnant in the future.
With many fertility clinics offering egg freezing to their patients, the procedure has transformed from one only undertaken if there is a medical need (perhaps before embarking on a course of treatment which is likely to affect fertility) to what has been termed by some as a fertility ‘insurance policy’ allowing women the opportunity to take steps now in an attempt to preserve their fertility just in case they are unable to produce viable eggs in the future. However, the value of that ‘insurance policy’ continues to be a matter for debate with wildly varying quoted success rates, which remain relatively low, and at a not unsubstantial cost. Yet many take the view that a backup plan is better than nothing at all, even if it offers no guarantees.
However the decision to freeze is only the first of many decisions to be taken which can have significant consequences in the future. For example, should the egg be frozen on its own, or should it be frozen as a fertilised embryo? The embryo is thought to be more robust than the egg increasing the prospects that it would survive the freezing process but comes with less flexibility to meet changes in the woman’s circumstances. The genetic makeup of an embryo is set by the choice of sperm used to create it (whether known or through anonymous donor sperm) and cannot be changed if, for example, the woman meets a new partner before she is ready to have children. Furthermore, if a woman and her partner separate before the embryo is implanted and the partner withdraws his consent for the embryo to be stored or used, it may have to be destroyed.
The decision of when to freeze the eggs is also an important one. From a medical perspective, the advice seems to be to freeze early on rather than waiting till you are in your mid to late 30s and 40s and using egg freezing as a last ditch attempt to preserve fertility. Whilst this may well be sound medical advice, there can be legal ramifications. That is because in the UK, it is only possible to store eggs for a maximum of 10 years after which they must be destroyed. The only exception to that rule is if the woman, or in the case of freezing embryos, her partner, are or are likely to become prematurely infertile. In that case, if the correct steps are taken before the 10 year time limit expires, the time for storage can be extended.
The choices that freezing offers are undoubtedly beneficial – but in making decisions about what and when to freeze guidance should be taken from both your medical and legal team. As with all forms of insurance, a full assessment of the risks and the possible future consequences is needed to ensure the choice you finally make is the one most likely to provide you with the best outcome in your particular circumstances in the future.
Liz Bottrill is a Partner in the Family Law Team at Laytons Solicitors with over 25 years’ experience in the field. She has a particular interest in the law relating to children and fertility.