18 October 2015, Varsity Comment Section
When it comes to fertility there is one certain enemy: time. As women age, the quality of their eggs deteriorates and the quantity decreases as eggs are released every menstrual cycle. Eggs are also vulnerable to attacks on the body, which is why health practitioners have been offering egg freezing to women undergoing chemotherapy for many years. But it is only recently with the development of new quick freezing methods that women have been voluntarily opting for egg freezing in a major way.
Although figures about egg freezing are hard to come by, some sources suggest that demand for the procedure has increased by 400% in private clinics in the UK, and the age of women enquiring about the procedure appears to be falling. The procedure is now also being endorsed by Silicon Valley companies, with both Facebook and Apple announcing last year that they would pay for any employees wishing to freeze their eggs in a move to ‘empower women’.
It is easy to see the appeal of the procedure. Egg freezing is pitched as the ultimate ‘insurance policy’ for women. Women are getting married and having children later than previous generations, but our bodies haven’t changed. At first glance, egg freezing would seem to offer women the ultimate freedom from the constraint this change in lifestyle may create; Women can have their eggs frozen, halting the biological clock in its tracks, get their education and careers on track, and wait for the right time and person to come along before having a baby. It sounds so simple – too good to be true. So, obviously, it is.
For an ‘insurance policy’ for women there is currently very little data about what the chances of actually having a baby are. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology website shows that up to December 2012 around 18,000 eggs have been stored in the UK, but only around 20 live births have been reported. Similarly, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported in 2013 that the chance of getting pregnant from a single thawed egg ranged from four to 12.5 per cent and was consistent with standard IVF rates.
This makes the assurance of actually having a child seem dubious. The idea that egg freezing pauses the biological clock is a myth, and that could be one reason for the lack of success. The freezing process preserves the IVF success rate at the age at which you freeze your eggs, meaning eggs frozen in your twenties are more likely to be fertilised than those frozen in your thirties and forties. Yet how many women in their twenties are likely to want to pay about £3,000 for an invasive 6-week long procedure, and around £300 a year for the storage of frozen eggs which they may never need? Fertility is also not just a matter of eggs. It could still be difficult for a woman in her late thirties or her forties to become, and remain, pregnant using an egg frozen in her twenties or thirties, because older mothers have a higher rate of pregnancy complications.
These figures hardly make it surprising that both the British Fertility Society and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists solely endorse the procedure for medical reasons, and not as a lifestyle choice. But these technologies are not just dubious for their promises to women of having a baby; they are doubly dubious for their claims that egg freezing provides women with a ‘choice’ over when they can start a family.
The expansion of egg freezing as a lifestyle choice to some extent removes the decision about whether women want to have children altogether. With its rhetoric of insurance and freedom, egg freezing is made to seem like the sensible option for all women: You may not want children now, but at least if you freeze your eggs you will always have the option. But the decision about when to conceive should be solely the domain of the woman, and it is disturbing that with companies now backing egg freezing – with the expressed intention of letting women delay having babies – there is now an explicit notion that delayed motherhood is the best motherhood. Apple and Facebook may preach the rhetoric of freedom and individual choice, but in reality the process of egg freezing presents women with a whole new social pressure, which is not to have babies – yet.