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Monday, 20 December, 1999, 13:45 GMT
Sperm and eggs: the legal background

Strict rules govern the freezing and thawing of eggs

Following a ruling which allows women to use their frozen eggs for IVF, BBC News Online examines exactly what you can and cannot do under the law.

As technology in the world of fertility marches on, the boundaries of ethics are pushed to their limits.

Doctors have more ability than ever to "play God" when it comes to the creation and manipulation of human life.

In the UK, regulation is stricter than in some other countries, which has led to some women going abroad to receive cutting-edge treatments which are not legal here.

The legal framework is set by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which was set up after an influential report by Baroness Warnock.

It is administered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), a watchdog which rules on every new development - looking at both ethics and safety.

The rules on eggs

At the moment, the rules on egg storage and use are contradictory.

Carolyn Neill wants to use frozen eggs
Women are already allowed to freeze unfertilised eggs - clinics were first given their licences to do this last year.

But until the most recent ruling, doctors were not even allowed to thaw them out, let alone use them.

The HFEA said that there was insufficient evidence that a baby created using these thawed eggs would be healthy and free of genetic problems.

However, January's ruling allows what the HFEA calls a "carefully controlled" programme of thawing and IVF.

One clinic has been licenced for the procedure, and the HFEA says it will treat further applications on their merits.

Egg donation for immediate use in IVF treatments is less complex, although the full written consent of both mother and father must be gained.

If the egg has come from a third party donor, her consent must be also be recorded - and can be withdrawn at any time.

At the moment, payments for women who donate are pegged at 15 - as are the payments for sperm donors, ostensibly to cover expenses.

However, the additional stress to women has led to some specialists to call for an increase in payments - Professor Ian Craft, director of the London Fertility Clinic, suggests 25 for men and 500 for women.

Egg-sharing is considered by some to constitute payment as the donor receives cut price or free fertility treatment.

The HFEA has resisted calls to outlaw egg-sharing, or increase the payment.

The rules on sperm

Many men faced with the prospect of cancer treatments which could render them infertile choose to freeze sperm for use at a later date.

Diane Blood won the right to use her dead husband's sperm
Unlike eggs, it is common practice to thaw the sperm and use them for fertility treatment at a later date.

The legal minefield begins if the man dies before the sperm is thawed and used - or, as in the most recent case, taken.

The key issue is consent - if a man has given explicit, written consent to the taking, or usage of sperm to create a child with a particular woman, those wishes can be observed.

In the case of Diane Blood, the consent from her late husband Stephen was not written, only verbal, but a court ruled that this was sufficient.

The controversy over the case involving the parents of a man who died in a road accident focus on both the authenticity of the typed consent form produced by the parent, and the fact that the consent relates particularly to a former girlfriend who now wants nothing to do with the process.

The HFEA is refusing to allow a surrogate mother to take her place.

Permission to export sperm

Specific permission has to be obtained from the HFEA before sperm, eggs, or frozen embryos can be taken out of the country.

This is to stop people taking them to other countries which have less strict rules about fertility treatments.

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See also:
20 Dec 99 |  Health
Fight for dead man's sperm
10 Dec 98 |  Health
Egg sharing and donor payments to continue
26 Jul 99 |  Medical notes
How to donate eggs and sperm

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