When a friend recently turned 40, I called her to see what she’d like for a gift. I was thinking shoes, scarf… What she asked for was a donation to help her cover the cost of freezing her eggs.
My friend desperately wants children and hasn’t met Mr Right. So although she knows she has left it a bit late, she’s decided to freeze her eggs, just in case.
Egg-freezing (oocyte cryopreservation) is a medical procedure whereby a number of eggs are extracted from the ovaries and frozen for use in the future.
The rising trend among women now is known as social egg-freezing, where eggs are frozen for lifestyle, rather than medical, reasons.
Social freezing gives women time to focus on their career or meet someone with whom they want to start a family. Other women do it in case they never meet Mr Right and decide to go it alone. Essentially, it gives women options and takes the pressure off their ever-ticking fertility clocks. My friend was a bit late in freezing hers. Most clinics urge you to freeze your eggs a decade earlier – at 30 – before your fertility falls off a cliff.
Beacon CARE Fertility expert Bart Kuczera warns that fertility levels in ladies plunge dramatically as they approach 40. “A woman’s fertility begins to decline at 30, with a significant drop at 35 and an even more significant drop by the time a woman reaches 40. Often the biggest problem facing patients is reduced egg quality, which often leads to failed IVF or miscarriage.”
Of the profile of women coming to the Beacon CARE Fertility clinic for egg freezing, medical director Ahmed Omar says: “The average age for freezing their eggs is around 37. Ideally, women should be 36 or less. It is not advisable after 38.”
But as well as the social freezing, there is also the medical side. For a woman who has cancer, freezing is something she can do to protect her eggs from being damaged by chemotherapy.
Although social freezing is a relatively new option, increasing numbers of young women are open to the idea as a kind of insurance policy for their future.
The average age of Irish women having a baby in 2016 rose to 33.
On top of which, 43,761 fewer women aged 20-39 had babies compared to similar figures from the 2011 Census.
The highest number of babies born to women aged 45 and over was recorded in Donegal, with the lowest rate in Galway city. It looks like Donegal might be the place where fertility clinics should spend their advertising budgets.
Companies now are getting on board with egg-freezing too, in an effort to help young female employees. Among the many perks employees enjoy at tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google is egg-freezing.
It started in 2014, when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg heard from a female employee with cancer that she couldn’t afford to freeze her eggs; nor could she convince her insurance provider to cover the cost. Without egg-freezing, she and her partner were unlikely to have children of their own, due to the risks posed by her cancer drugs.
“I talked about it with our head of HR and said, ‘God we should cover this,’” Sandberg said. “And then we looked at each other and said, ‘Why would we only cover this for women with cancer, why wouldn’t we cover this more broadly?’”
The benefit of offering egg-freezing is meant to help younger female employees who may not want children in their 20s but don’t want all the risks that come with delaying childbirth into their 30s and sometimes 40s.
So, how much does it cost and what are the success rates? One egg-freezing cycle, plus storage for a year, costs about €3,000. However, if you later decide to have IVF using your frozen eggs, the cost will double. It is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly physically, emotionally or financially.
The concern among the medical field is that the option of freezing eggs can lull women into a false sense of security. Many women presume that by freezing their eggs when they are 30, they’ll easily have a baby when they are ready at 40.
But it’s not straightforward.
The main challenge to success with frozen eggs is to survive the thawing process. According to Ahmed Omar: “Chances of survival is 80-85pc but the survival is much lower for eggs frozen in women above 38 years. It is accepted that if the eggs survive the thaw, the chance of success is comparable with fresh eggs, which is dependent on female age.”
A large study performed by the CDC (American National Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion) in 2012, looking at the national outcomes of assisted reproduction cycles using frozen non-donor eggs, indicated clinical pregnancy rate of 35.9pc for all ages.
“This statistic is similar to outcomes with fresh eggs,” said Mr Omar.
Whatever their reasons for doing it, egg-freezing gives women options they previously never had.
And even if the success rates are still low, if it can give a young woman peace of mind while she undergoes chemotherapy or merely the time to find the right partner, then it’s worth a shot.