Sept. 22, 2017 -- On a rainy weekday evening in a strip mall in the posh Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, a group of women met in a wine tasting room. They had gathered for a 21-and-over event involving wine, chocolate -- and a discussion about how to freeze their eggs.
“Age impacts success,” Kathryn Calhoun, MD, said to the 10 or so 20- and 30-somethings attending the event this summer. Calhoun is a female infertility specialist at the Atlanta Center for Reproductive Medicine, which sponsored the event.
Infertility clinics have used egg freezing “parties” for several years as a way to get the word out about their services. Interested women can ask questions, talk to experts, and hear from women who’ve gone through the process.
Although cancer patients hoping to preserve their fertility may try egg freezing, doctors say they are seeing more interest in the procedure from women who may not have a health reason for doing so.
Success rates for egg freezing, which has been around since the 1980s, have risen with a newer process that “flash freezes” the eggs, called vitrification. In 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine declared egg freezing was no longer experimental.
Companies such as Facebook, Google, and Apple are among those that offer insurance coverage of egg freezing for employees.
Nina Desai, PhD, director of the In Vitro Fertilization Lab at Cleveland Clinic, says she has seen that more patients are interested in the procedure, particularly women who work in tech companies that cover it. Freezing eggs can be empowering to women, because it allows them to ��… have a little insurance policy so when they do find the right person, that they will still be able to have a child that is genetically their own,” says Desai.
Vitaly A. Kushnir, MD, at the Center for Human Reproduction in New York City, says he has also seen that more women want to freeze their eggs. He cautions women about marketing campaigns to freeze eggs for social reasons -- such as not having a partner -- that are not related to health.
Guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine “… explicitly advise against social egg freezing,” he says.
“There’s been a lot more marketing on behalf of fertility centers towards social egg freezing, but there has also been a demand from patients coming in and asking for it,” Kushnir says.
Why Women Freeze Their Eggs
Calhoun says women come into her clinic for three reasons:
- They have been diagnosed with cancer and are about to have treatment that may affect their fertility.
- They are donating their eggs for others and freeze some as well.
- They want to have children someday but are not at a point where they are able to, either due to career or relationships.
“If you’re at all considering starting a family and you are not necessarily exactly where you want to be for any reason, it’s a good idea to come in and talk to a fertility specialist about freezing eggs, or about other options. So I think knowledge is definitely power and there are a lot of options,” Calhoun says.
The process isn’t cheap.
While costs vary depending on location and insurance, Calhoun says the average cost without insurance is about $9,800, including the first year of storage.
Success rates also vary. In 2013, 23.7% of live births resulted from either fresh (done within 24 hours) or frozen eggs. Of those who became pregnant from their frozen eggs, 81.3% resulted in a live birth.
Eggs can’t be tested to see if they’re viable before freezing, because of the potential to damage them. Calhoun says they only freeze “mature” eggs that have already had some cell division and are more likely to be successfully fertilized in the future.
Calhoun says she sees a slightly greater success rate with embryos, rather than frozen eggs. But that's not always possible. “You either have to have a partner or you have to commit to using donor sperm,”she says.
Jessie Wurzinger, a patient at the Atlanta clinic, says she was inspired to try egg freezing by her sister-in-law, who became pregnant and had a child after doing in vitro fertilization.
“We had a weekend with our family at the beach to celebrate his first birthday, and I was so touched by that, I thought about the fact that I was 32, super single, annoyed with the males, and wanted to take some control over my fate a little bit,” said Wurzinger, now 33. “I also didn’t want the fact that I was focused on my career to hurt the potential life of my child.”
Wurzinger had to give herself daily hormone shots for more than a week to stimulate egg growth. About 2 weeks before the egg removal, she had to go for blood testing every day, including weekends, to see if the shots were working or if adjustments were needed.
After doctors successfully removed her eggs, Wurzinger waited about 4 weeks before getting back into her regular fitness routine.
“Don’t let the money scare you, and find someone to talk to,” Wurzinger says. Because it is expensive, young women could start saving money for it and then use it for something else if they decide not to go through with it, she says.
Egg Freezing Risks
Desai says women considering the procedure need to realize that the older they are, the harder it is to become pregnant. “The cost effectiveness is greater if you are younger. As you get older, 39 and over, egg freezing will require multiple cycles,” she says.
Kushnir says women should consider the risks before moving forward.
The drugs used to stimulate the ovaries can sometimes cause ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Symptoms range from bloating and dehydration to potentially life-threatening blood clots, he says. Bleeding can happen where the needle is inserted, and there are anesthesia risks. Most women will have multiple rounds of this treatment to get enough eggs, Kushnir says. Long-term social and medical risks are not really known, he says.
“There have even been centers set up specifically focused on this,” Kushnir said, “so not traditional fertility centers that provide all sorts of infertility treatments, but just centers that only focus on egg freezing … and that’s really problematic because they have no outcome data whatsoever because no one gets pregnant in their center. So they could freeze eggs from hundreds of women but have absolutely no results to show from it for years.”
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine cautions that there is not enough data now to know all the possible risks, saying in its guidelines, “while short-term data appear reassuring, long-term data on developmental outcomes and safety data in diverse (older) populations are lacking.”