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My Lords, the guiding principles of our health service are compassion, healing, prevention and equality. Every patient has their own concerns; all are to be treated as valuable individuals and not as units of whom we disapprove or with whom we have no empathy. Therefore, I again urge the Minister to find a way to show compassion and equality to a small but growing group of women who have frozen their eggs—a lifeline for women whose natural fertility is beginning to fade but who have failed to find a partner.
Typically, such women freeze their eggs in their early 30s, and the law is that they can be kept for only 10 years. Therefore, in their early 40s, when they might well think that the last possible chances of natural conception are ending, they will have to destroy those perfectly viable eggs. There was no logical reason for setting the 10-year limit. More than 1,000 women do this every year now, and the freezing technique has improved. The cost of egg removal starts at about £4,000, and then the woman has to pay whatever the clinic asks annually for storage—and of course she cannot refuse. At the end of this expensive journey, costing £7,000 to £8,000, there may be nothing except, to her, a mini death.
We should not condemn women who freeze their eggs because they cannot find a father for their longed-for baby. We should be sympathetic. The pressures on women when the biological clock is ticking are such that their psychological health is affected, and that is likely to make the forming of a permanent relationship even more difficult. No woman should be forced into the mindset of putting instant pressure on a new manfriend to procreate; or to settle for Mr Average or Mr He-Will-Do, rather than Mr Right, not least because such a man might not be the one to stick around and be a good father. Extending the time limit would actually lead to healthier practices, for a woman might then freeze her eggs in her 20s, when they are even more viable, rather than waiting until her 30s. Moreover, if her eggs have to be destroyed after 10 years, she may well resort to a donated egg, with the extra complications in that.
It has been argued that older motherhood is not a good idea and that a short storage period forces women to make up their minds. The law, however, lays down no upper age limit for the treatment of women. The law says that the clinician considering treating her should take into account the welfare of the potential baby and whether it will receive supportive parenting, thus each patient would be considered on the basis of her age, and there are plenty of births to over-40s these days. That is not to mention the lack of public disapproval of old men, such as the wrinkly old popstars on their fifth wife, whose new fatherhood is regularly celebrated in the media. It is not, therefore, for us or anyone involved to try to impose an artificial upper age limit on female procreation.
Another argument is that storage of eggs will increase to unmanageable proportions, but in the 40 years since IVF started, the number of embryos stored has increased by a huge amount without any trouble. Rules for storage for people who are, or are likely to become, prematurely infertile should be amended very slightly in order to accommodate the needs of women who have frozen their eggs. My Private Member’s Bill, about to be introduced, asks simply for consultation and suggests that where a woman has not yet completed her family—in her view, confirmed by a medical practitioner—the eggs should be stored for longer; that period could be confirmed by consultation, or could be 20 years, which really would be reasonable.
Women need the same ability as men to balance career aspirations and family- building. Extended storage gives them just this. They need a law that respects their human rights to a private life and to found a family. They need to be free of discrimination, for men can usually store their sperm for 55 years. Litigation about the human rights elements may take place, but how much more generous it would be for the department to consult and be kind.
A change would mean a great deal to many women and would have a profound and beneficial psychological effect on the way they lead their lives. Surely the Minister cannot deny the strength of this appeal to her better nature and that of her department. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Progress Educational Trust and the British Fertility Society—in fact, the entire profession—have all written to her to urge consultation. The profession and the patients are united in calling for this. In these troubled times, a gesture of kindness would be profoundly welcome.