A world of anguish in an inch of glass

'Blanket' legislation that is causing despair
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Experts warn that the "blanket" legislation surrounding the destruction of thousands of frozen embryos fails to take into account the complex issues surrounding their creation.

The first wave of embryo disposal has highlighted problems such as ownership, the disposal of wanted embryos because of failures in tracing original "parents", the disposal of sibling embryos and the ethics involved when both the genetic and adoptive parents may be entirely separate - problems which experts say must be urgently addressed if the destruction is to continue. JOJO MOYES reports

Three women were yesterday granted last-minute injunctions to prevent their frozen embryos being destroyed, as fertility experts and campaigners warned that hundreds of couples would be unable to save much- wanted embryos because of the failure of "shoddy" blanket legislation.

The reprieve began when one woman, whose estranged husband had refused to sign a form consenting to an extension of the storage period, managed to obtain an injunction preventing the immediate destruction of her fertilised eggs.

At least two other women were thought to have obtained similar injunctions yesterday. As the news emerged, lawyers faxed fertility clinics warning them that they had found a loophole in the law which imposes a five-year storage limit.

"In our view for clinics to now destroy the embryos, believing they did not have consent, would expose them and the HFEA [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority] to legal liability," said the fax from Graham Ross, representing the first woman to obtain an injunction.

Lawyers argue that embryos created with donor sperm could be kept indefinitely if sperm was given before the five-year storage limit was imposed.

Experts say the "shoddily put together" law has failed to account for the extent of egg and semen donation and the problems in tracing couples overseas. Due to the requirement for the express consent of both "parents", they predict increasing problems as the destruction of embryos becomes a regular event.

The move has added to the distress of doctors, who presided over the destruction of more than 3,300 "orphaned" embryos.

Dr Peter Brinsden, of Bourn Hall Clinic, Cambridge, where as many as 900 embryos have been destroyed, said he wished the loopholes had been found two weeks ago.

"I am certain in my mind that we have complied with the law, but naturally I am devastated. Indeed all the staff are very distressed.

"They have worked hard to create embryos, and have had to destroy them. Now we are getting people saying that maybe we shouldn't have allowed them to perish," Dr Brinsden said.

Yesterday morning he received a faxed letter from a couple living overseas asking him to extend the storage period of their embryos another five years. But the letter arrived 24 hours too late.

Dr Brinsden revealed he had retained six embryos. One belonged to a woman threatening legal action, while the "parents" of the remainder had told him consent forms permitting extended storage were in the post.

Dr Peter Bromwich of the Midlands Fertility Service, where 90 embryos had been destroyed, said he was extremely sad that the fax had arrived too late. But he said he was stuck between the threat of legal action from parents and immense pressure from theHFEA.

He added that he had been told he faced prison if he did not fulfil his legal obligations in destroying the embryos, and that a representative would come to the clinic and do it anyway. "This act is flawed and is so shoddily put together that it had to go back to Parliament a year later. But it's still not right."

Dr Bromwich said clinics were hampered by both time and legal restraints in finding couples where both partners had been involved in the creation of much-wanted embryos.

In many cases they were not allowed to trace the couple if it would "identify" them to a third party.

And according to Professor John Scarisbrick, chairman to trustees of the "pro-life" organisation, Life, the use of false names by sperm donors and the practice of anonymity meant that it was often impossible to trace the men.

The couples

Couples who fall out: who gets custody?

On Thursday night a childless woman obtained a High Court injunction to prevent the destruction of her frozen embryo. The unnamed woman's estranged husband had refused to sign a form consenting to an extension of the storage period.

According to her solicitor, she believes this is her only chance to have children, but the husband has not consented so far.

He may have withheld consent because he does not wish to pay maintenance, or he may eventually be planning to have another family with a future partner.

What happens to embryos if one partner dies?

In these cases, it appears the embryos may be useless. Dr Robert Forman, clinical director of the London Gynaecology and Fertility Centre yester- day told of a couple under treatment where the wife recently died. The husband wished to donate the embryos but was told he was not allowed to because the wife was "not available" to give her consent.

Constraints on finding patients: how will they know?

One couple who had treatment were transferred to the US with the air force The clinic was not allowed to approach the air force to ask for the new address as it would have identified them. The couple do not know the embryos will be destroyed.

In another example, a clinic had lost touch with another long-term patient after she moved. The woman's GP contacted the fertility consultant on numerous occasions for advice on the patient, but he was not allowed to ask the GP for the patient's new address, or even ask him to forward a letter to her because it would have "identified" her.

The siblings

The siblings: how to keep them together

Mrs A donated her "spare" embryos - created with donor sperm - after completing her own family with twins. As a result of the donation, yesterday morning Mrs B was confirmed as pregnant.

She would desperately like to have the spare sibling embryos. "But she [Mrs B] will not have any siblings related to her first child because we cannot trace the sperm donor, and those embryos are scheduled for destruction in May next year," her consultant said.

Rather than "waste" Mrs A's embryos, they will be used for another, unrelated couple - with the result that brothers and sisters could be brought up in three or more different families.

Depending on the length of time that embryos have been stored, it is also possible that the siblings could be born as much as 20 years apart.

The adoption of embryos: how to keep them apart

In an attempt to stop "orphan embryos" from being destroyed, Life was among the organisations which offered to "adopt" them. To an extent, with the distribution of donated embryos between families (see left) this already takes place.

Julia Cole, spokesperson for the marriage guidance organisation, Relate, believes that the practice raises serious issues. "For a start," she said, "how do you stop [people], grown from sibling embryos, from growing up and marrying each other?"

New research showed that clients requiring the most counselling were often those who were not brought up by their original parents. "How would you feel, growing up knowing you were adopted as a four-to-six- week cell because your parents no longer wanted you, and you were about to be destroyed?"

The donors

The anonymous sperm donor: how can he give consent?

One couple lost their embryos yesterday after failing to locate their sperm donor in time.

"That particular couple had undergone an attempt at treatment that failed, then shortly afterwards were offered a child for adoption. The adoption agency made them promise not to have another baby while the adopted child was settling in, as it was rather disturbed, and they agreed," said their consultant.

Unfortunately, the child had not settled in by this week's deadline.

"Earlier this week, the wife was planning an injunction [to prevent the destruction]. But the High Court said they had to publish her and her husband's name and the couple didn't want to publicise the fact of the husband's infertility," he said.

Professor John Scarisbrick, chairman to the trustees of the pressure group Life, points out that that there is an incongruity in the importance given in the case of embryos to the father's consent in the right to life, when he has no rights over the process of abortion. "Why should the father's consent to the survival of offspring in vitro be critical?" he said yesterday.

The egg donor: the problems of donation.

According to Life, many egg donors claim they were not contacted about the imminent destruction of their fertilised eggs. Some women have contacted them to say they are appalled at the destruction of the eggs they had gone to so much trouble to provide, after clinics failed to notify them in time.

"Some women are furious about this. They feel they got into egg donation for altruistic reasons but many say they will not do it again," a spokesman said.

Dr Bromwich of the Midlands Fertility Service agreed, and said that obtaining eggs from donors was already difficult, both in terms of persuading women to do it and the medical procedures involved.

"It's much easier to get men to donate semen; it's fairly simple, it's quick and it's quite good fun. With women it's quite a different procedure. This isn't going to help," he said.