Clock ticking for frozen baby 'assets'

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 28/08/2014
Fertility Associates’ Wellington laboratory team leader  Angela Seaton checks some of its frozen sperm.
FROZEN LIFE: Fertility Associates’ Wellington laboratory team leader Angela Seaton checks some of its frozen sperm. The clinic has about 1700 patients whose ‘‘material’’ would be older than 10 years by the November deadline.

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A looming legal deadline may spell the death of some people's only chance of having children.

Hundreds of people's frozen sperm, eggs, and embryos, plus testicular or ovarian tissue, that have been stored for more than 10 years face destruction if their owners cannot be found before November 22, when a 10-year limit is up.

Fertility clinics around the country have spent months desperately trying to contact thousands of people about what some term "their frozen assets" - but hundreds are yet to be traced, with privacy and confidentiality complicating the task.

A decade ago, the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act was passed and included a 10-year limit on storage, although it allowed people to ask for an extension from the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (Ecart).

In particular, those who had eggs, sperm, embryos or ovarian and testicular tissue frozen before medical treatments that destroyed their fertility, such as chemotherapy, risk losing their sole chance to create their own genetic family if they fail to seek an extension.

"There would be definitely some people for whom it will be their only chance to have children," Fertility Associates' group operations manager John Peek said.

The clinic, which he said did about 70 per cent of New Zealand's assisted fertility work, had about 1700 patients whose frozen "material" would be older than 10 years by the November deadline. It had tried to contact a further 200 who would reach the 10-year limit by next May.

Most had frozen sperm or embryos, some possibly dating back to the mid to late 1980s, but a few had frozen eggs or testicular and ovarian tissue, which were fertility treatments more common in recent years.

The clinic was still searching for about 350 people on its list and planned to seek a short-term extension by October.

Peek said the clinic's greatest fear was that someone would turn up just after the deadline, saying they wanted to try to have a family, only to find it was too late because their genetic material had already been destroyed.

"We are just really hoping to reach people so they can be made aware of this."

He urged people to contact the clinic if they had stored material.

Most of the people wanting extensions either still planned to have children or were unable to face destruction of the material, he said.

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To date, 126 people had applied for extensions, with 72 approved, two declined, one deferred and decisions pending on the rest. Most were to extend storage of frozen sperm, eggs or embryos, with only two for ovarian tissue.

Many applications were from youths or young men with sperm stored before medical treatment that risked making them infertile.

Ecart chairwoman Kate Davenport said some seeking extensions were not ready to have children for years, including those who were still quite young. "And there are a few who are still looking for Ms or Mr Right."

One quirk of the law was that embryos created with sperm frozen many years earlier were captured by the 10-year deadline, which was linked to the date the sperm was banked.

That was the issue for a Hawke's Bay couple, who used donor sperm in 2011 that had been frozen almost seven years earlier.

They had a baby boy nearly two years ago and they planned to try for a second using the same donated sperm early next year. They applied to Ecart for a five-year extension, which was granted last month.

"We do want to have another baby, but we weren't quite ready just yet."

FROZEN SPERM OR EGGS SUBJECT OF CONSENTS

A project has been launched to decide whether people can create babies from sperm or eggs gathered from a comatose person without their consent.

Earlier this year, a court order allowed sperm to be collected from a brain-dead Auckland man before life support was switched off, so his partner could have a child by him. However, they must gain ethics committee approval before the sperm can be used.

The acting chairwoman of the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology, Alison Douglass, said it planned to brief the incoming health minister about its project to review posthumous use of eggs, sperm and embryos. It would include a policy on comatose people.

She said there had been many developments in fertility treatment since the committee's predecessor, the National Ethics Committee on Assisted Human Reproduction, created its guidelines in 2000 on the storage, use and disposal of sperm from a deceased man. That included the option of freezing a comatose or dead woman's eggs.

The current guidelines noted it was "ethically unacceptable" to collect sperm from a comatose or recently deceased man without his prior written consent.

Only one application to use sperm from a dead man who had not given his consent had been lodged since 2005.

It was declined in November 2006, "due to the intending mother not residing in New Zealand and consent not having been obtained from the deceased man", according to the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology's 2006-07 annual report.

It was unknown whether an application was lodged to use the deceased Auckland man's sperm.

There had been cases in New Zealand of men dying after consenting to have their sperm frozen, and a handful of babies had resulted.

- The Dominion Post

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