U.K. Women Are Fighting an ‘Absurd’ Law That Destroys Their Frozen Eggs
An outdated law puts a 10-year storage limit on eggs that women froze to preserve their fertility
At first glance, Sharon Jones doesn’t seem like your everyday political activist.
The 34-year-old’s social media accounts depict the average life of an urban, Western woman: cocktails, sunsets, inspirational quotes, and weddings. She chatters animatedly in a Liverpool accent, sometimes referring to herself as “Shazza,” recounting stories about her life, her many sisters, and her search for a boyfriend.
But Jones’ quest to preserve her fertility has turned her into one of the loudest voices in a growing reproductive rights movement affecting thousands of British women. The burgeoning campaign aims to abolish the 10-year storage limit on frozen eggs that have not been preserved for medical reasons.
Under current law in the U.K., women may freeze their eggs for up to 55 years if they have a medical reason for premature infertility, such as treatment for some cancers or gender reassignment. But those with nonmedical, “social” reasons for doing so are forced to decide after 10 years to either use their eggs to make embryos, move their eggs abroad, or allow them to be destroyed.
Now, a number of women who froze their eggs in the early 2000s are coming up on their 10-year mark, and they’re petitioning against Parliament to change the law before it’s too late.
“They are my genetic material. Why should they get destroyed?”
Jones froze 16 eggs last year with the intention of preserving high-quality eggs in case she needed them in the future. Years before, a subway ad for egg freezing had piqued her interest in the procedure. At the time, she felt pressure to find a boyfriend, she says, but she wasn’t having much luck. Instead of settling for someone less than perfect, Jones saved up to “invest in becoming a mother.”
But in the U.K., egg freezing can be a chaotic and confusing procedure. In addition to unclear pricing and confusing packages offered by clinics, women are often not informed about the 10-year law. At a recent Fertility Fair Jones attended in London, she noted with frustration that most clinics advertising fertility services did not clearly state that there is a time limit for storing eggs.
Jones began her advocacy to extend the limit in 2018, when Lord James O’Shaughnessy, a member of the Conservative party who was then the Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Care, stated in Parliament that extending the social egg freezing limit “would be a significant social policy change… [and] would require a broader public debate.”
Enraged, Jones became outspoken on social media and in interviews with news outlets about her belief that the “absurd” limit infringes on women’s rights to make reproductive choices — and she isn’t alone.
In interviews with OneZero, advocates for extending the 10-year window called the current law “an absolute outrage,” “ridiculous,” “definitely wrong,” and even a potential “breach of human rights.” A woman who froze her eggs in 2008 and asked to be kept anonymous said of the 10-year limit: “It’s unnecessary, it’s cruel, it’s discriminatory… The law needs to catch up with the technology.”
Now, a cadre of experts, including clinicians, politicians, academics, advocates, and women who have frozen their eggs are lobbying lawmakers to update the law. They argue that there is no medical or scientific reason standing in the way of changing the law—just a preoccupied, indifferent Parliament.
In 2009, when the law was passed, egg freezing technology had not been proven widely successful, and the limit for egg storage was set at 10 years because regulators didn’t know whether the eggs would survive. It was still an experimental treatment. However, the technology has developed quickly: In 2013, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine removed the “experimental” label from a new freezing process called vitrification, and the egg freezing industry thrived as a result. Despite these advances, U.K. regulators continue to maintain an arbitrary status quo. In February 2019, the government stated it had no intention to revisit the law.
In late October 2019, a social media campaign with the hashtag #ExtendTheLimit, led by the Progress Educational Trust (PET), a prominent fertility and genetics charity, took off. Jones and others have shared their stories online, at conferences and talks about fertility, and in the media, hoping to muster public support.
According to HFEA records, a cohort of 234 women froze their eggs in 2010. They are coming up on their 10-year mark now, but the law will affect many more women in the years to come. In the U.K., the number of women freezing their eggs doubled between 2013 and 2016, and now over 1,000 women freeze their eggs annually, according to official figures. The procedure is generally privately funded, unless there is a medical reason for it, and costs between £6,000 and £10,000 ($7,800 and $13,000) for a full cycle of producing, harvesting, and freezing eggs, in addition to an annual fee of about £200-£300 to store them.
Some advocates argue that the 10-year limit contradicts the accepted medical advice because it forces women to use their eggs earlier than they had planned. Experts agree the optimal time for a woman to freeze her eggs is before age 35 because fertility declines rapidly after about age 37, limiting the chances of both natural and assisted conception. By age 41, the chances of getting pregnant using fresh eggs and IVF is just 11%, according to the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Imagine a scenario in which a single woman freezes eggs at age 31 but becomes pregnant naturally in her late 30s. The 10-year limit means she would be forced to use the frozen eggs by age 41, possibly before she was ready to do so. If she chose to allow the eggs to be destroyed, the possibility of siblings would also be impacted. In the U.K., adults are waiting longer to have children: Ideally, a woman would be able to use her 31-year-old eggs to have a baby into her midforties, if she so desires.
“My eggs are in the freezer for baby number three and four!” jokes Jones, who admits that nothing is for certain when it comes to fertility, even with technological assistance. “It’s not an insurance program… But I should be able to use it when I’m ready.”
Women who are not ready to use or destroy their frozen eggs when they reach the 10-year limit are forced to take measures into their own hands. Carolyn, who froze her eggs in 2008 at age 37 and asked to only be identified by her first name, was forced to move her frozen eggs abroad to Spain. “They are mine,” she said. “They are my genetic material. Why should they get destroyed?” She conceived a daughter naturally after freezing her eggs, but she says she would have regretted not doing so, just in case. “It really helped to have this cunning plan B up my sleeve,” she said.
TV presenter and scientist Emily Grossman, who froze her eggs at 38, has expressed her strong support for the campaign on her large public platform. Now 41, she says, “It is completely ludicrous to have such an arbitrary limit on something that is so important for so many women.”
Currently, all petitions to the U.K. government, including the #ExtendTheLimit campaign, are closed until after the upcoming general election on December 12. The law can only be changed by Parliament, but fortunately, the campaign’s supporters already have one very important ally there: Baroness Ruth Deech, a member of the House of Lords who chaired the HFEA from 1994 to 2002. As the government agency that oversees fertility regulation, HFEA is responsible for carrying out the 10-year limit on social freezing and ultimately answers to Parliament.
Baroness Deech has allied herself with the campaign and plans to reintroduce a bill to amend the current law after the election. (The original bill was halted by the October prorogation of Parliament due to Brexit.) She has regularly spoken out in Parliament about her belief that the law “needs to be reviewed urgently.”
There’s reason to be hopeful that the laws will change. Regulators have admitted that the limit was not based on medical or scientific reasoning, and Sarah Norcross, director of PET, says she has not experienced extensive pushback against extending the limit. “I’ve not had any angry emails,” she says.
Still, some critics argue that extending the limit could result in older mothers, making them vulnerable to health risks as well as exploitation by fertility clinics making promises they can’t deliver. But Joyce Harper, an advisor on the HFEA Scientific and Clinical Advances Advisory Committee and a reproductive scientist at University College London who studies social issues around fertility, says this reasoning shows a misunderstanding of existing policies to prevent women from being harmed. The 10-year limit on social egg freezing does not currently prevent a woman from having a baby in her forties or fifties. There is no legal age limit for becoming a parent in the U.K., and it is at the discretion of private clinics to determine whether a woman would be endangered by pregnancy due to her age. In addition, there is no age limit on using donor eggs.
“How about you stand up for all these women whose eggs are going to be destroyed?”
Another criticism against extending the 10-year limit is that it would result in a pile-up of eggs, waiting for decades in freezers across the country.
To this, supporters say: So what? They argue that if women are paying to store their eggs and plan to use them in the future or even donate them to scientific research, it does not inconvenience anyone. “It’s hard to see who is harmed,” says Norcross.
“The eggs that you freeze are still your eggs,” says Rachel, 50, a mother of two children born from frozen eggs. “This law implies that after 10 years, [the eggs] pass to being the state’s property. That doesn’t seem right to me.”
Ultimately, the fight comes down to a question of reproductive rights.
Women should have a right to decide when and how they reproduce, say supporters, arguing that the law stands in the way of women making choices about their own fertility, drawing “arbitrary and unfair” lines on how and when they want to start families. Harper argues that “there should be no difference at all” between social and medical egg freezing. “It’s about the freedom of how we want to use our own bodies,” says Grossman.
Norcross says her team is in conversations with the Department of Health and Social Care, and Baroness Deech tells OneZero that she is optimistic her bill will get movement in the new year.
However, for the women who froze their eggs a decade ago, next year is not soon enough.
Jones, whose eggs won’t be endangered for another nine years, says she has high hopes for Baroness Deech’s bill. But she is also calling on the regulators, HFEA, to do more.
“How about you stand up for all these women whose eggs are going to be destroyed?” says Jones. “You’re here to represent the people. We’re a democracy.”
For now, she’s happy to do her part to try to inform the public about the limit and speak about her experiences, especially if it helps raise the profile of the campaign for the women who are facing the time limit imminently — and in the future.
“It’s about making positive change. If egg freezing is becoming a thing, then women should be doing it young,” she says. “And this legislation is going against the grain on that.”