Storage limits for eggs, sperm and embryos will be increased to a maximum of 55 years under Government plans to give people greater choice over when to start a family.
Ministers have proposed that the statutory storage limits should increase more than five fold from the current limit of 10 years and should no longer be governed by medical need.
Prospective parents would be given the option to keep or dispose of the frozen sex cells or embryos at 10-year intervals under the new system.
Doctors have argued that the current limit – after which prospective parents must decide whether to undergo fertility treatment or have the cells destroyed – was too restrictive.
Research from the Royal College of Obstetricians has suggested that frozen eggs can be stored indefinitely without deterioration, thanks to a modern freezing technique.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The current storage arrangements can be severely restrictive for those making the important decision about when to start a family, and this new legislation will help turn off the ticking clock in the back of people’s minds.
“Technological breakthroughs – including in egg freezing – have changed the equation in recent years and it’s only right that this progress puts more power into the hands of potential parents.
“By making these changes, we are going to take a huge step forwards – not just for giving people greater freedom over their fertility, but for equality too.”
The proposals, which follow a public consultation launched last year, will need approval by Parliament.
Additional conditions will apply around third party donors and posthumous use, with the health department saying it would be “inappropriate” for the limit to apply in all cases.
British Fertility Society chair Dr Raj Mathur welcomed the plans.
“This change ensures that UK regulation is compliant with the scientific evidence about the safety of storage, and protects the ability of all our patients to make reproductive choices for themselves as individuals and couples,” he said.
Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Julia Chain, said the organisation is “really delighted” with the proposals, which she said should give women “a lot more choice, a lot more flexibility, about when they can start having their families”.
While the increase would mean that technically a woman could freeze eggs in her 20s and still have them available in her 70s, she said “no-one is rushing to treat much older patients”.
She told the BBC Radio Four Today programme: “All clinics carrying out fertility treatment in the UK are regulated by us – by the HFEA – and the majority of clinics will set their own upper age limit as to when they treat women.
“Mostly that’s late 40s or early 50s. We certainly would not at all recommend clinics who were treating women well into their 50s and, in fact, we’d look very closely at what they were doing, should they do so.”
She added: “I think that there is a sort of self-regulation and no-one is rushing to treat much older patients.”
Progress Educational Trust, a fertility and genomics charity, echoed the welcome from other organisations.
Director Sarah Norcross said: “This move is of huge significance for many women, not just those who have frozen their eggs, but women who may be considering doing so.
“Extending the 10-year storage limit on social egg freezing will enable women to exercise reproductive choice, freeing women from the constraints of an outdated, discriminatory and unscientific law, and the threat of having their eggs destroyed against their will or being forced to become a mother before they are ready to do so, either with a partner or via a sperm donor.
“It will also mean women don’t face the additional financial burden of funding the transfer of frozen eggs overseas and later fertility treatment abroad.”