Along with buying tampons and choosing contraception, navigating the eventual tick-tock of a biological clock is one of the realities of being a woman. Sure, we know that female fertility doesn’t last forever, but that doesn’t mean the ‘right time’ to have a baby will be the same for everyone.
Which is why there’s a rising number of women choosing to put their eggs on ice in order to future-proof their fertility. Here, we provide the facts on the egg freezing process and hear from the experts on why women need to be informed when making their fertility choices.
What exactly is fertility preservation?
In a nutshell, it’s a reproduction safety net and there are several ways that a woman, man or a couple can potentially prolong fertility. “Preserving your fertility involves freezing your eggs, sperm, embryos or reproductive tissue so that you can hopefully have a biological family in the future,” says the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Specifically, egg freezing – or oocyte cryopreservation in medical speak, is the method of harvesting eggs from a woman’s ovaries, freezing the unfertilised eggs, and then storing them to be thawed and used in the future.
Why would egg freezing be an option?
In an ideal world, there’d be a fertility crystal ball to see into the future – just to check that if, and when, we want it, a smooth path to pregnancy is guaranteed. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing. Enjoying life without ties, concentrating on a fulfilling career, or simply finding a partner that you actually want to procreate with can mean the focus isn’t always on baby making when the body is at its most fertile – years can go by without giving the reproductive timeline too much attention.
Because of this, some fertility specialists are urging young women to get informed and consider their options before their fertility falls off a cliff. The biology behind the advice is this: women are born with a fixed amount of eggs in the ovaries and that ovarian reserve will decrease, as we get older, making it more difficult to conceive. Egg quality also deteriorates faster over the age of 35, increasing the risk of miscarriage or chromosomal problems.
“The ideal age for women to become pregnant is in their twenties and early thirties. A woman's fertility potential declines rapidly after the age of 35 and drops even faster after the age of 40,” says Dr Amin Gorgy, fertility consultant at The Fertility & Gynaecology Academy.
Women who have a medical condition, or are undergoing treatment for cancer, members of the armed forces who risk injury, or someone planning a gender transition, may also consider freezing their eggs to safeguard their fertility for the future.
“My advice for young women who may delay conception for any reason beyond the age of 35 is to seriously consider egg or embryo freezing as your ‘insurance policy,’ says Dr Alex Eskander, consultant gynaecologist at The Gynae Centre.
What’s the egg freezing process?
It all starts with the IVF process, which involves injecting hormones to boost egg production and to help the eggs mature. The eggs are collected via a needle under anesthetic or sedation. “At this point, instead of mixing the eggs with sperm as in conventional IVF, a cryoprotectant (freezing solution) will be added to protect the eggs. The eggs will then be frozen either by cooling them slowly or by vitrification (fast freezing) and stored in tanks of liquid nitrogen,” explains the HFEA.
The aim is to retrieve and freeze between 15-20 eggs to increase the chances of success, but for women with low ovarian reserves, the amount collected and frozen may be much less.
When it’s time to use the eggs they will be thawed and the surviving eggs will then be injected with a partner’s or donor’s sperm. After up to six days, the embryo will be implanted in the woman’s womb.
How much does egg freezing cost?
Egg freezing can cost between £2,500 to £5,000, with storage costs at an additional £150 to £400 per year. The standard storage period in the UK is ten years. You can expect to pay a further few thousand pounds to thaw and fertilise the egg, and implant the embryo.
So does egg freezing guarantee a baby?
Not necessarily. There's a chance that the eggs won’t survive the thawing process or it’s possible that an embryo won’t develop at fertilisation. According to the HFEA, only 60 babies have been born from frozen eggs since 2001, however that figure is expected to rise in the future due to a 30% increase in the procedure in the last few years.
The fertility treatment clinic, The Harley Street Clinic recommends that the egg freezing route should be viewed as a good back up plan but there is no guarantee that frozen eggs will provide a successful pregnancy in the future. Dr Geetha Venka, Director at the clinic adds, “I would like all women to realise that we do all have a fertility life span and we need to take active measures to preserve this from our twenties or very early thirties.”
Prof Adam Balen, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says that success rates for egg freezing have improved significantly in recent years, so offer an opportunity for women to freeze their eggs for social reasons if they're not ready to have children yet, however, "while women should be supported in their choices, they must be informed about the relatively low success rates, high costs and side-effects. Women should also be aware that in the UK the storage limit for eggs frozen for social reasons is currently limited to 10 years," he says.