Is It Really Worth Freezing Your Eggs?

From tech firms offering egg freezing as a perk to companies hosting egg-freezing parties, trying to guarantee your fertility has never been more mainstream. Polly Dunbar investigates...

Egg Freezing Fertility

by Polly Dunbar |

Amanda Moss always assumed that by the age of 30 she’d have a husband and children. When she turned 37 and still had neither, she decided to freeze her eggs. ‘I’d just split up with someone and thought it was a good time to do it,’ she says. ‘It was my insurance policy and it made me feel relaxed enough to go on dates without panicking that I was running out of time to have a child.’

Egg freezing for ‘social’ reasons – because you aren’t in an appropriate relationship, or ready – is on the rise. In 2016, there were 1,310 cycles, a 17% increase from 2015. Some companies – notably those in the tech industry, such as Google, Apple and Facebook – now offer discounted packages as a perk for female employees. Meanwhile, earlier this year, private firm Egg Bank in London started hosting parties for young professional women to learn more about putting their fertility on ice, or ‘taking control’ as they phrased it.

All of this offers hope to women like Amanda that their fertility can be preserved, giving them the option of trying to conceive at a later stage with the higher-quality eggs they froze when they were younger. Few recent scientific advances have been so powerfully enticing.

But dig beneath the grandiose claims and the statistics are less reassuring. The latest research from the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, released last year, shows that the chance of a woman having a baby using her own frozen eggs is just 18% per cycle – significantly lower than her chance with IVF using a fresh egg, which is 30%. It’s difficult to disentangle the reality from the hype in an industry regularly accused of exploiting people’s dreams. So at a cost of around £6,000 for a cycle of egg freezing, not to mention the physical and emotional discomfort involved, is it worth gambling when the odds are so low?

According to the experts, the factor that makes the biggest difference to those odds is the age of the woman when she freezes her eggs. Most commonly it is 38, whereas the average age to undergo ‘standard’ IVF is 35. ‘The technology offers options for women, but they need to be using it at the right time, which is before they’re 35,’ says Dr Kylie Baldwin, a sociologist who specialises in social egg freezing. The evidence suggests that if eggs are frozen before 35, the chance of success is higher than the natural conception rate as the woman ages. ‘Currently, though, women generally aren’t doing it at the optimal age,’ she says. ‘They’re freezing eggs when their fertility has already declined.’

For Amanda, now 44, freezing her eggs at 37 didn’t turn out to be the solution she’d hoped for. The medical representative underwent two cycles, injecting herself with hormones to stimulate her ovaries and having multiple eggs collected under sedation. In total, the clinic froze 15 of her eggs, at a cost of around £10,000. When, at 39, she found herself single after the end of a relationship, she decided to try for a baby on her own using her frozen eggs and donor sperm. ‘Out of 15, only one fertilised, but it didn’t result in a pregnancy,’ she says. ‘I had IVF using my fresh eggs, too, which produced one chemical pregnancy [a very early miscarriage] and another pregnancy that miscarried at about eight weeks. It’s interesting that I twice got pregnant with 40-year-old eggs, but not with frozen 37-year-old ones. I thought I could keep trying and it might work one day, but how long do I keep going for? It was exhausting.’

Amanda, sucessful egg freezing

In January 2015, Amanda travelled to Spain to have IVF using frozen eggs from a 32-year-old donor. It worked first time and she now has a three-year-old son, Joshua. ‘He’s a beautiful little boy and I’m so happy I got there in the end, although the whole process cost me around £50,000,’ she says. Looking back on her decision to freeze her eggs, she feels conflicted. ‘In some ways, I wish someone had said, “You need to do it before 35 because there’s a much higher chance of it working.” But I wasn’t ready in my early thirties, when I assumed I had plenty of time to meet someone.’

This dilemma is one shared by many women. Those Dr Baldwin has studied generally only feel ready to contemplate egg freezing in their mid-to-late thirties. ‘They’d found themselves unexpectedly single and didn’t want to go into a relationship just to have a child, only for it to break down,’ she says. But, as Dr Baldwin points out, the law also encourages women to freeze their eggs later, since they can only be stored for a maximum of 10 years if they’ve been frozen for social reasons. ‘I’m campaigning for the law to be changed, because why would someone freeze their eggs in their twenties when, by the time they need them, they’ll no longer be available?’

Leaving it until later is problematic in other ways, too. ‘What clinics may not be communicating effectively is that older women may have to undergo multiple rounds to get enough eggs for future use, because they produce fewer eggs per cycle, and those eggs aren’t as good quality,’ she says. ‘That comes with the associated costs and emotional diffculties. Most women are going through it alone, and it’s very difficult for them.’

Once eggs have been harvested they go through what she terms an ‘attrition process’ before they can create a baby: ‘There’s freezing, thawing, fertilising and then implanting.’ Not all eggs will survive thawing, and of those that do, not all will fertilise, and even viable embryos won’t necessarily lead to a pregnancy, so ‘at every stage of the process, you’re losing them. at’s why you need a lot of eggs,’ she says. ‘And trying to use them to get pregnant costs a lot more money on top of what’s already been paid for the freezing.’

Yet there are some women for whom the process has been successful, even at an older age. Lauren*, a lawyer, spent £7,000 freezing 21 eggs when she was 39, and thawed 10 when she was 47. Nine were fertilised with donor sperm and one formed an embryo good enough to be implanted. She became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy last year. ‘I’m proof that it’s not impossible,’ she says. ‘I knew there were no guarantees, but I wanted to give myself a better chance of meeting someone and being able to conceive with them. I’m still single, but I’m glad I didn’t rush into a relationship that wasn’t right just because I wanted a child. Freezing my eggs gave me the breathing space to help me avoid that. Also, being a single mother has been a lot easier than I thought it would be – I’m really happy.’

But for Alice*, 41, a marketing consultant, the outcome was different. At 36, after splitting up with the man she thought she was going to marry, she spent almost £15,000 on three rounds of egg freezing, which yielded 14 eggs. As her 40th birthday approached, she decided to use them to try to become a single mother, using donor sperm. Seven eggs were thawed and six survived the process. Of those, four fertilised, but only one embryo was good enough quality to be viable for transfer and sadly she didn’t become pregnant. She then thawed the rest of her eggs, but of the five that survived only two fertilised, both abnormally. ‘There was no embryo, no glimmer of hope,’ says Alice, whose blog provides a wealth of information about egg freezing and IVF. ‘Devastated doesn’t begin to cover it. I felt sad, angry, exhausted and resentful.’

What she doesn’t feel, though, is regret. ‘Freezing my eggs meant I never have to wonder if that might have made a difference,’ she says. ‘I gave myself the best shot at motherhood that I could have done. At a time when I felt overwhelmed by what life had thrown at me, I was able to claim back a bit of control. The one thing I wish I’d done, with hindsight, was try to create embryos to freeze. It would have been a test of the quality of my eggs, and if they were sub-par it might have given me a heads-up that I might need to start trying to get pregnant sooner.’

Dr Baldwin’s advice to women thinking of freezing their eggs is to find a clinic that can provide age-specific success rates, and ‘one they feel listened to and supported by’. ‘I’m certainly not anti-egg freezing,’ she adds. ‘But I’d urge women to consider other alternatives, too, whether freezing embryos using donor sperm – which is much more likely to result in a live birth – or single motherhood via other approaches if they think they could build their family that way.’ In other words, if you’re 30-something, single and think you’d one day like a family, don’t make the mistake of thinking egg freezing is your cast-iron guarantee.

Alice’s blog can be found at eggedonblog.com

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