April 12, 2024

Little progress in ensuring the safety of IVF freezing tanks, one year after two catastrophic failures

No single government agency is responsible for checking

In an extraordinary coincidence last year, the freezing tanks at two major American IVF centres malfunctioned, destroying the embryos and eggs belonging hundreds of clients. The incidents, at University Hospitals Fertility Center, near Cleveland, Pacific Fertility Clinic in San Francisco, both happened on March 4, but they appear to be unconnected.

Lawsuits against the clinics and the manufacturers of the tanks have been filed alleging negligence, gross negligence, and breach of contract. It is a rich vein for the lawyers. “There are people who are no longer fertile, and currently have no children,” one told Marie Claire last year. “There are people who have had children. There are people who have a child through IVF with donor sperm, and they have now lost their biologically related child. There are so many levels of impact of this.”

Both centres appear to have complied with the procedures and regulations in force at the time of the incidents. What has been done in the last year to ensure that similar incidents won’t happen again? A special investigation by NBC has concluded that the answer is: very little.

In the year since the malfunctions, there have been some changes and improvements. Extra precautions have been established at some facilities, including new inspection safeguards, backup tanks and updated monitoring systems.

But the failures did not stir a move toward greater government regulation to reassure the growing number of women freezing their eggs … there is no single government agency empowered to crack down on mistakes or malfunctions by fertility centers.

The centers are subjected to oversight by a wide range of authorities, from federal and state government agencies to private professional associations and accrediting organizations.

Some agencies and organizations monitor the industry and collect data on it. But the freezing tanks or other devices used for the long-term storage of reproductive materials are not subject to consistent oversight or regulation, and no government agency has stepped in to impose new requirements despite last year’s failures.  

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge.

Creative commons