COVID-19 and assisted reproduction: yet another obstacle to parenthood

Among the many groups of people to be hit particularly hard by the current COVID-19 pandemic, spare a thought for those who are seeking to start a family using assisted reproduction.

As The Guardian reported at the weekend fertility clinics have now closed their doors, meaning many couples being denied treatment, some quite literally at the door of the treatment room.

For some, this is not just a question of delay, but potentially a denial, of fertility treatment. Most clinics will not treat women over a certain age (often 42 for NHS clinics) so for those approaching this “cut-off” the potential impact of the present lockdown could be catastrophic.

And the impact does not stop there. There are statutory limitations on the storage of frozen eggs, sperm and embryos (generally ten years). Just imagine the anxiety for a childless couple whose eggs or sperm have been frozen for the past nine years – might they be about to have the opportunity to be a parent snatched away from them?

The impact doesn’t stop there. For those presently on a surrogacy journey, the current situation is also potentially traumatic. Just imagine what the lockdown could mean for those with an overseas surrogacy arrangement. There are cases of intended parents whose surrogate in the United States is shortly to give birth being unable to obtain a visa to travel to be present for the birth and to take custody of their baby. One can only imagine the anxiety for those affected. Others who are already in the US find themselves unable to return home with their child. There are also significant concerns for people who already have their baby, but need a Parental Order from the court to have their status as parents recognised. With the court system in Scotland effectively closed, where there are again time limits for such applications, and where there is a need for others in the court process to be involved who may not be able to work because of the lockdown regulation, it is a very uncertain time. 

What can we, as lawyers, do to help? In the short term, there may not be much, other than acting as advocates in the broad sense. Some of these situations are 'urgent' enough though for there to be things that can be done within a court process for those who find themselves hit by this unexpected body blow after what may well already have been a long, painful journey towards parenthood. Childlessness is often a silent, hidden problem. It’s important that these stories don’t get overlooked.

And while I have your attention you might also want to consider signing the Progress Educational Trust’s petition to extend the storage period for eggs beyond the current ten year period. This arbitrary time limit, which has little justification in current science/medical practice, is currently being reviewed by the Department of Health.