What to expect if you break up with someone you've frozen embryos with

What to expect if you break up with someone you've frozen embryos with


Breakups can be incredibly messy and tricky to navigate – especially when toxic partners are concerned.

They can be even more difficult when they involve complex legal elements.

Actress Anna Kendrick has spoken out about her own situation this week, revealing she froze embryos with her ex before their relationship changed and, eventually, ended.

Speaking on the Armchair Expert podcast, she told Dax Shepard and Monica Padman: ‘We had embryos together, this was my person. And then about six years in, about somewhere around there, I remember telling my brother, when things had first kind of gone down, “I’m living with a stranger. Like, I don’t know what’s happening”.’ 

The process of freezing embryos with a partner requires careful consideration – not only from an emotional perspective, but because there are numerous legal elements involved with it, too.

As a result, it can become pretty complex if a couple decides to split or divorce.

So what actually happens when you break up with someone you’ve frozen your embryos with?

What the law says

Firstly, there’s the issue of consent. 

Clare Ettinghausen, the director of strategy and corporate affairs at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), tells Metro.co.uk: ‘By law, patients who undergo fertility treatment must provide written consent to ensure their sperm, eggs or embryos are used and stored in a way in which they are happy with.

‘If a couple separate before any created embryos are transferred, it’s important they inform their clinic if they wish to change, or withdraw the consent they provided previously. 

‘Embryos can only be used if both parties have given their consent and if one partner withdraws consent, their clinic will then take appropriate steps to inform the other partner of their decision.’

Claire also stresses that fertility clinics should be able to advise patients who are considering changing or withdrawing consent – this includes helping them complete the required paperwork, as well as offering them access to counselling.

The difference between frozen eggs and embryos

It’s worth pointing out that there’s a big difference between freezing eggs and freezing embryos.

Eggs and sperm can each be frozen separately, with consent given from whoever has donated.

Dr. Amit Shah, a gynaecologist and co-founder of Harley St. clinic Fertility Plus, explains: ‘The storage of frozen eggs is set up by clinics which are regulated by the HFEA – fertility clinics quite literally act as a bank. The woman who chooses to freeze her eggs is thereby the owner.’

However, some couples choose to freeze embryos (made of both sperm and an egg), rather than individually freezing them. This can result in consequences down the line if the couple split – so it’s important to be aware of what this can entail. 

Dr. Amit adds: ‘Embryos (fertilised eggs with sperm), results in a joint ownership – hence one person doesn’t have complete control.

‘The current law requires both parties to continue consenting to storage/or use of embryos. 

‘Yet, if either party changes their mind and removes consent, the embryos require destruction (this usually happens after an agreed or allocated “cooling off” time).

‘This is much unlike in the US – where separated couples can go to court over embryo “custody”.’

A ‘cooling off’ period

Beverly adds that the UK law very clearly states that frozen embryos can only be stored or used in treatment with consent from both parties.

She explains: ‘In divorce or separation cases, it’s quite common for such consent to be withdrawn – and if such consent is withdrawn the embryo cannot be used for treatment. 

‘The clinic must allow a 12-month cooling off period giving the person who has withdrawn his/her consent the opportunity to change his/her mind.’

However, if written consent is not given within that 12-month period for storage and/or treatment, the embryo must be destroyed. 

Beverly continues: ‘This can be devastating for clients particularly those that wish to use the embryos but then have no power to stop them being destroyed.

‘While clients do not want to contemplate separation at the time of embarking on fertility treatment, it is so important that clinics refer patients to experts to understand the legal implications on separation/divorce and options available to them.’

Also, it goes without saying that the emotional impact of losing an embryo in this way shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s worth pointing out that there are many charities and support lines for anyone struggling with this, including Fertility Network, Cope and more.

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