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Q&A: Peter Sozou on IVF and UK law

7 Jun, 2010
Dr Peter Sozou

Dr Peter Sozou

Human embryos created by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) can be stored for use in future fertility treatment. However, difficulties can arise if a couple create embryos together and then their relationship breaks down. With funding from a Wellcome Trust Value in People Fellowship, Dr Peter Sozou of the London School of Economics and colleagues looked at how UK law governing stored embryos might be improved to give people more flexibility over the type of agreement they can enter into.

What is the current UK legal situation?

When embryos created by IVF are stored, each member of the couple who created the embryos has the right to withdraw consent at any time before the embryos are transferred to a woman’s uterus. In effect, both the woman and the man maintain a veto over using the embryos to try to produce a pregnancy, up until such time as they are used.

Why is this a problem?

Couples who have stored embryos sometimes split up, and this can lead to disagreements about what to do with their embryos. In some cases, stored embryos represent a person’s only chance of becoming a biological parent – a situation that more commonly affects the woman than the man. In these cases, withdrawal of consent by the other person can have devastating consequences. We examined whether the present law, specifying a ‘one-size fits-all’ agreement, can be improved to enable people to choose an alternative type of agreement when this would suit them better.

What is your alternative?

We propose giving people the option of one member of the couple voluntarily giving up their veto over the future use of the embryos. The other person would then have sole control over the embryos, so their future use would not be dependent on continuation of the relationship. This option would not replace the current form of agreement but should be available as an alternative. It would be up to the couple to decide which agreement suits them best.

What interested you about this area?

There was a widely reported case about a woman who had created embryos with her partner before undergoing cancer treatment that left her sterile. The relationship later ended and he withdrew consent for continued storage of the embryos, depriving her of the chance to have her own genetic children. The case went all the way to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, where the woman lost. A Wellcome Trust fellowship allowed me to explore this problem with Geraldine Hartshorne, an expert in reproductive medicine, and Sally Sheldon, a legal expert.

What other pressing issues are there?

A closely related problem is that of withdrawal of consent by donors of gametes [eggs or sperm]. Donors can withdraw consent at any time up to the time that sperm, eggs or embryos are transferred to a woman’s body in fertility treatment. We found that sperm donors do withdraw consent occasionally. This has had serious consequences, including destruction of embryos that had been fertilised by the donor’s sperm. In an article published in BMJ, we suggest a standard set of options for donors wishing to withdraw consent, and there may also be a case for restricting the circumstances under which this can take place.

Another important question is whether to use one or two embryos in a cycle of IVF treatment. Using two gives a higher chance of achieving a pregnancy but also increases the chance of a multiple birth, which can lead to complications. Because the financial costs of any complications tend, to a large degree, to fall on the public purse, there may be circumstances where a single-embryo transfer would be preferable from society’s viewpoint. How to mediate this conflict is an interesting problem.

What do you do outside of work?

I probably spend more time than I should following news and current affairs. I also enjoy walking, listening to early music and eating chocolate.

Reference

Sozou PD et al. Consent agreements for cryopreserved embryos: the case for choice. J Med Ethics 2010;36:230-3.

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