Two stories in this week's BioNews highlight the benefits and the drawbacks of freezing human eggs and sperm. Carolyn Neill is challenging a Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ruling that whilst she has been allowed to have her eggs frozen, she is unable to use them to get pregnant. Meanwhile, Natasha and Barry Smith are planning a legal battle, also against the HFEA, to use their dead son's frozen sperm to have a grandchild.
Whatever the media reactions to these two stories (which seem, on appearances, to be sympathetic towards Carolyn Neill but unsympathetic towards the Smiths), one common theme has emerged: that hopes have been raised which may end up being dashed. In the case of Carolyn Neill, the HFEA decision has meant that her fertility is literally in suspended animation whilst the authority convinces itself of the safety of egg freezing and thawing.
Life for Natasha and Barry Smith is similarly on hold. They are waiting to see if they will be given leave to use their son's sperm to fertilise a donor's eggs and produce a grandchild for them. It seems unlikely that the Smiths will be successful since their son's only indication of his wishes is a letter giving his girlfriend - not his parents - permission to use his sperm after his death. The girlfriend in question, however, does not wish to take her dead boyfriend up on his offer.
It seems, from looking at these two instances, that egg and sperm freezing is offering more than it can realistically deliver. It is true to say that freezing postpones decisions and that this can cause a great deal of anguish. For Mr and Mrs Smith, the frozen sperm taken from their son has taken on symbolic status. They feel that if they let go of the sperm, they let go of their son. Carolyn Neill is trying to hang on to something: her fertility. If she is not allowed to use her eggs to attempt a pregnancy, she may feel like she is losing her potential children. Without freezing, neither of these situations would have arisen. The Smiths would be starting to come to terms with the death of their son. And Ms Neill would have started to come to terms with her childlessness.
It's not the freezing technology, however, which is to blame. Lots of medical technologies offer hope of a happy ending which may never materialise. But, no matter how much heartache is involved, it is surely better to have some hope of success than to have no hope at all. The problem arises when patients are presented with a picture that is overoptimistic. Even if the Smiths' son's letter adequately indicates his wishes, those wishes are not that his parents procure themselves a grandchild. And even if Carolyn Neill is eventually given leave to use her eggs, her chances of success are vanishingly small. Let's hope that the people involved in these two cases have been properly warned about the possible outcomes, whether or not they are successful in their respective battles.