It was a surreal moment. Under the hot glare of studio lights, on live television, the presenter, introduced me as ‘Marisa Bate who would like to freeze her eggs but can’t afford it’. It wasn’t exactly my prefered twitter bio but it wasn’t completely incorrect, either. The Victoria Derbyshire show was having a debate about egg-freezing and I’d found myself in front of the camera, with several other women, talking about the how, when, where and why of having babies. I was sweating. A lot.
It perhaps would have been more accurate to introduce me, however, as Marisa Bate who would like security. Piece of mind. A Guarantee. Some kind of clause in my life’s contract that said, ‘You will have a baby when you’re ready. It will all be fine.’ I wanted control. I wanted choice. I wanted the knowledge that I could work hard, live in a remote corner of Nevada for 12 months and then have a baby on my schedule.
This is, of course, is impossible. Because life, and biology, doesn’t work like that and having babies can be hard, even when it is The Plan. I know this because I watch friends try and they can’t, so an earth-shattering journey begins. And yes, I know and they know and we all know that, actually, the best chance of having a baby is when you’re younger, in your twenties, but to be honest, I couldn’t have wanted anything less in my twenties.
But now I’m in my thirties. And, as nearly all women in their 30s will attest, babies, a bit like Friday nights in and walks in the country, are suddenly all anyone can talk about even though we were practically allergic to them five years prior. And the closest I can get to that feeling of control, in my head, at least, is egg-freezing. No, you’re not ready just yet, but get the eggs while they’re hot and fresh, like morning bread from a boulangerie, and maybe you can Have It All. Or, that’s what tech companies like Facebook think as they promise staff that they’ll pay for the procedure. And then maybe that invisible countdown clock will chill out a bit, will let up, pipe down. Maybe you’ll feel like life is a bit more in control, your control. That you don’t have to give up your Nevada dream yet. That there’s still time.
And this is why, today, at the start of National Fertility Awareness Week, the Progress Educational Trust (PET) is launching #ExtendTheLimit, a campaign to extend the 10-year storage limit on eggs frozen for non-medical (sometimes called social) reasons. According to the trust, ‘If a woman wants to try to preserve her fertility, the best time to freeze her eggs is in her 20s but, under current UK law, women who freeze their eggs for non-medical reasons can only store them for 10 years. This means if a woman freezes her eggs when she is 22 she has to be ready to use them before she is 32; if she isn’t she faces a limited number of distressing and potentially financially-crippling options.’
Both PET director Sarah Norcross and Professor Emily Jackson, a specialist in medical law at the London School of Economics, have called the legislation a breach of ‘women’s human’s rights’. According to Norcross, ‘It is discriminatory against women because of the decline in female fertility with age. It is an arbitrary and outdated piece of legislation that does not reflect improvements in egg freezing techniques and changes in society which push women to have children later in life”. PET is asking people to sign the petition urging the government to end the egg-freezing limit. .
Professor Dr Geera Nargund, medical director of CREATE Fertility, agrees that the limit is ‘now illogical and nonsensical’ explaining it was a decision made ‘many years ago when the risks of long-term storage of gametes and embryos were not known, and before modern vitrification, or “fast-freezing” technology was introduced.’ It is now ‘vital’, she says, ‘that it is extended if the full benefits of egg-freezing are to be realised.’ Professor Nargund believes the current limit stops women freezing their eggs ‘at a younger age when they are more healthy and fertile’. ‘Egg-freezing methods have undergone a revolution over the last few years and the 10-year limit is holding egg-freezing back from the full emancipatory impact it could have”
We need to have conversations with younger women that aren’t scaremongering – about their fertility now or what happens to it as they enter their 30s
I am all for the law catching up with, and listening to science, especially the kind of science that has the power to empanicapte but I wonder if women really do think about freezing their eggs in their early twenties? I certainly couldn’t afford too, but it also didn’t occur to me, either. And it didn’t occur to my friends, either. I consult the group chat: did anyone thinking of freezing their eggs in their early 20s? A resounding ‘No’. Planning for, thinking about, saving for babies was not our agenda.
And whose fault is that? Ours, to some extent, of course. But we were broke. And I’d been brought up to believe that getting pregnant was as easy as catching a cold. I had no idea it could be difficult. At school, the suggestion was that it was so easy that if I just looked at Sam in Year 11, I’d be a teen mum. I was worried about contraception, I was worried about STDs. But never, in all the endless PSHE lessons, did someone say that getting pregnant isn’t always plain sailing.
There’s also the reality, I have since learned, that freezing eggs is hard work. A friend who is going through IVF told me, ‘The process I just went through is identical to what someone would go through for egg-freezing and it was really tough. It was hard and painful and I missed quite a bit of work with appointments and illness. Freezing your eggs is quite an undertaking – and then there are no guarantees.’
According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, in 2017, 19% of IVF treatments using the patient's own frozen eggs were successful and while it’s becoming ‘more successful it is by no means a guarantee of having a baby’. Another friend who is going through a fertility journey makes an interesting point: ‘If we’re inviting women to think about egg-freezing, should we be encouraging men to think about getting their sperm tested sooner? I think by focusing the whole conversation on eggs we can forget that even women with healthy, frozen eggs might not be able to get pregnant if there’s something wrong with their partner’s sperm.’ She raises interesting questions: should we be talking to men about freezing eggs? Should we even be assuming there will be a partner, let alone a male one? And ultimately, with issues of family, the domestic, why are we still always looking squarely at a woman first for both problem and solution?
Professor Nargund does not believe that blanket extension is the answer, however: ‘This could result in unintended consequences, such as women having children in their sixties or seventies when it may have a negative impact on both their health and the long-term welfare of the child.’ She would suggest ‘adopting a rolling time limit of five or 10 years at a time, with decisions based on a woman’s age, natural fertility and a clinician’s recommendation’, providing women with ‘necessary flexibility’. Based on the success rates and price, it is not surprising that egg-freezing is not a common procedure. In 2017, there were 1,463 egg-freezing cycles. Between 2010 and 2017, around 700 babies were babies were born through frozen eggs in the UK. The stakes are high and it’s expensive (at least £3,000) but is a shot in the dark better than no shot at all?
In my feminsit utopia, women should have informed and real (not perceived) choices on their terms but my feminist utopia exists only in my head. And as we continue to have children later and the cultural and social blueprints of a woman’s life are constantly, and more radically, being redrawn, we will butt heads with a body that is, yes, amazing, but also running on an essentially outdated software system incompatible with the demands of our modern life.
But there are other things to consider, too; such as working to ensure workplaces are more friendly towards parents so that having kids doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice or career roadblock. We need to have conversations with younger women that aren’t scaremongering – about their fertility now or what happens to it as they enter their 30s. And, at the moment, it is inaccessible, financially. The choice is there, but only just and certainly not for all. Egg-freezing is a long way from a magic wand and shouldn’t take the onus off others to talk about the many barriers to women having children when they are ready.