If you have had your eggs frozen or are contemplating the procedure, then, good news. The number of years in which frozen eggs, sperm and embryos can be stored will rise to 55 years, as opposed to the current limit of 10 years.
Right now, after a decade of having one of the above items frozen, you must decide whether to undergo fertility treatment, in the hope of conceiving, or to have the cells destroyed. (This is with the exception of cells that have been stored as a result of medical procedures, such as because you needed to have chemotherapy to treat cancer.)
This rule has long been described as arbitrary. Thanks to modern freezing technology, eggs can be kept indefinitely with no deterioration, according to Research from the Royal College of Obstetricians.
These plans still need parliamentary approval and The Department for Health has stated that extra conditions will be in place concerning the use of someone's frozen cells after they have died, or those of third party donors.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: 'This new legislation will help turn off the ticking clock in the back of people's minds.
'By making these changes, we are going to take a huge step forwards - not just for giving people greater freedom over their fertility, but for equality too.'
Julia Chain, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, said 'This will women a lot more choice and flexibility about when they can start having their families.'
So, what actually is egg freezing – and, given the expense – is it something you might want to consider? To get the lowdown, WH had a chat with Joyce Harper, Professor of Reproductive Science at the Institute for Women's Health at UCL, author of Your Fertile Years: What You Need to Know to Make Informed Choices, co-founder of the Fertility Education Initiative and the person behind female health community, Global Women Connected to answer your need to know questions.
Plus, we caught up with three women to hear about their first hand experience with the procedure – so keep scrolling, for the inside track.
So. What is getting your eggs frozen actually like?
Reality check. Egg freezing is not a trip to Margate. 'It's hard to go through,' says Prof Harper.
'It's essentially IVF, without getting an embryo implanted. You have to go through the injections to stimulate your ovaries into producing extra eggs, the scans, the harvesting...' Plus, just like IVF, there's inherent risks in the surgical aspect of the egg harvesting.
Straight up: this is not some breezy day out. We're talking a potentially painful (like we said, daily injections) process that does include a doctor burrowing about in your vaginal wall to remove the cells that are going to be frozzled.
How much does egg freezing cost?
'It's about £5,000 a cycle,' says Prof Harper. 'But most women want to bank about 12 eggs – and it may take multiple cycles to get there.' It's not uncommon for women to need two or three cycles to get to that volume, although age does come into play, here.
If you're in your late twenties, you're more likely to produce more eggs, though this is super individual. A solid £15,000 is not an uncommon figure, in the egg freezing game. Meep.
You also need to know that just like your local Big Yellow Self Storage there is an annual storage fee for storing goods, which can stack up. Plus, not to be the fun police, but if you eventually have IVF and it's not on the NHS, you could be sticking thousands more on your total baby bill.
What is the best age to have your eggs frozen?
The younger, the better.
'In my view, if you're 28 and don't think you'll be ready any time soon, do it sooner rather than later.' Why? Aside from being more likely to produce more eggs in a single cycle, your eggs are of a higher quality from at 28 - 30, than they are at 32-34 and beyond.
High-quality eggs are more likely to be able to be fertilised and to grow into a viable pregnancy. 'The majority of UK women who are freezing their eggs do so at around 38, which is a problem,' says Prof Harper.
Egg freezing: the verdict
'It's a viable option,' says Prof Harper. 'It can be expensive and it is no guarantee of having a baby in the future, but, if you can afford it, it could be a good idea.'
And what about the tiny number of women concieving with their frozen eggs? Well, there's a lot of reason for that. Namely, that many women who freeze their eggs never collect them.
Why? It could be that they met someone and had a kid naturally. Or, perhaps they didn't want to raise a child on their own and didn't meet someone.
'The data does show, that, in couples who have a baby via IVF and a donor egg, that a frozen donor egg has as much chance as a fresh egg of being successful,' says Prof Joyce.
That translates to a 35% chance of conception per cycle. As such, if you do wind up having IVF with your own frozen egg – and you froze that egg when you were 32 and now you're 40 – you've got just as much chance with your lovely young egg at your older age, as you would have had at the time.
I had my eggs frozen - this is what happened
In spring 2016, Sarah Bagg was coming round from general anaesthetic in a London clinic when a doctor came into view.
The procedure had been successful, he told her; they’d retrieved five mature eggs. Aged 38, and still reeling from the end of a six-year relationship with the man she had hoped would be the father of her children, Sarah was desperate for more time to create the family she’d always assumed she would have. As far as she was concerned, freezing her eggs would buy her that time.
The marketing manager, who blogs about her experiences with egg freezing at lifeloveandme.co.uk, had parted with around £4,000, injected herself with hormone- stimulating drugs for 12 days and held her breath through multiple ultrasounds before undergoing surgery to retrieve the eggs.
‘There was an overwhelming sense of relief,’ she tells WH, of the moment she woke to the news that she now had five eggs on ice. ‘I felt empowered and positive, as if I’d said goodbye to my previous relationship. It had been a success.’ Only, the relief didn’t last.
Days later, Sarah researched the chances of having a baby with five eggs. Fear and bitter disappointment rose in her chest as she read reports that recommended storing 20, even 30, in order to have a good chance of having a child. Now 42, Sarah finds herself in a sort of limbo; one in which, despite going to great lengths to future-proof her fertility, she may never become a mother.
‘I don’t remember being told about success rates during the early stages of the process, just that there was around a 90% chance of successfully thawing my eggs if I decided to use them,’ Sarah explains. ‘I think that figure stayed in my head because it’s what I wanted to hear.
So I proceeded with the five eggs I had.’ But calculating the odds of motherhood is a complex numbers game. ‘The issue of success rates is incredibly complicated,’ says Dr Kylie Baldwin*, senior lecturer at the Centre for Reproduction Research at De Montfort University, who has recently completed a study of women who have frozen their eggs for social reasons (rather than medical issues).
She explains that the chances of a frozen egg resulting in a live birth depend on the woman’s age when the eggs were harvested (egg quality deteriorates as you get older), the number of eggs frozen (the more eggs on ice, the more opportunities there are to create an embryo) and the clinic where you have the procedure done (the more experience and up-to-date processes they have, the better).
Even accounting for these variables, landing on reliable odds is problematic. ‘Very few clinics in the UK have what I call 'in-house success rates', which set out the chances of success if you freeze your eggs in this clinic at a specific age,’ explains Dr Baldwin.
To be able to offer this information as statistically significant isn’t possible, since the number of women freezing their eggs is still small and, among those who do, many never return to use them.
Though this doesn’t stop some clinics utilising numbers to market their services to potential clients. ‘Clinics might quote data based on the results of other clinics, on studies of 22-year-old women or even US studies, rather than on their own results,’ says Dr Baldwin.
‘Some clinics are brilliant and will give women the best possible data available from their own experience, but it’s very patchy across the industry. There needs to be much more clarity about the data that is available, and the limitations of that which exists.’
What can the experts tell you? According to the latest data from the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) – the UK’s independent regulator of fertility treatment – there were 6,156 egg freezing cycles in the UK between 2010 and 2017, with 700 babies born from frozen eggs during that period.
But these statistics don’t paint a complete picture, given that some women have multiple egg freezing cycles in order to retrieve a sufficient number of eggs, and many of those won’t yet have returned to use their eggs.
The same organisation confirms that just 19% of IVF treatments using a patient’s own frozen eggs were successful in 2017. Neither number reveals the impact of a woman’s age on success.
Dr Baldwin has seen evidence using predictive modelling in the US that suggests that if a woman freezes 20 eggs before she turns 35, she may have up to an 80% chance of a live birth from those eggs; but if she freezes them at 39, she would need 50 eggs for the same chance of success.
Danni Gordon knew her odds were low. ‘I was told I had a 4.5% chance of one egg resulting in a live birth,’ she recalls. ‘But I wanted to do it as a safety net, as something, one thing, that I had control over.’
The single 36-year-old body positivity campaigner, living in Edinburgh, describes herself as a realist, and she decided to be proactive. She endured ‘it’ll never work’ remarks from friends and did her research so, by the time she underwent the egg collection procedure in September 2018, she felt she was going into the process with her eyes open.
Based on her age and hormone test results, Danni was told she could probably expect to freeze 10 eggs, but she came round from the anaesthetic to a doctor telling her – in a manner in which you might break the news that it’s raining outside – that she would probably need to repeat the operation to have any real chance of conceiving. ‘I was woozy as hell and really upset,’ she recalls.
‘She told me they’d only managed to freeze five, and it was the first time the number of eggs I needed was ever mentioned to me. That’s not something you say to someone moments after they’ve had an invasive procedure. A woman on the same ward got 25 eggs and it made me feel like I’d failed.’
Danni recovered from this disappointment and, after a follow-up consultation, she decided to undergo the operation again. This time, the procedure retrieved a further six, giving her a total of 11 eggs on ice. She’s happy with the result and feels it was worth the £9,000 she spent, which came from an inheritance.
Despite taking two years to make the decision to freeze her eggs, Kate Leahy, 41, was knocked sideways in the weeks and months following her egg collection in March 2017.
‘I hadn’t accounted for the physical complications, nor the lack of awareness from clinics more used to dealing with the more common embryo transfer/IVF procedure,’ she recalls.
Following her operation, she was sent home with a leaflet on embryo transfer and a passing warning about ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (a condition that can occur in some women who take fertility medication). But things took a turn for the worse. When Kate realised her bowels were blocked, the clinic advised her to take laxatives, which left her in excruciating pain.
A week later, sweating, vomiting and wailing in agony, she called an ambulance. It was only at her request that doctors eventually found a way to treat her that didn’t involve an operation that risked her losing an ovary.
Kate complained to the clinic and it has since amended its protocol. But while the incident hasn’t dented her faith in egg freezing – and she remains an advocate of the technology – she believes that her experience only serves to highlight the infancy of this procedure, and a lack of understanding around the toll it takes on women.
‘I was furious with the clinic for putting the thing I’d gone to them to protect – my fertility – in jeopardy, and for their willingness to offer me the treatment without any post-op care,’ she says. ‘It’s the duty of any private clinic offering a treatment to be aware of the vulnerability of the patient having it, and to ensure they’re supported before, during and after.
Clinics don’t seem to realise that the physical and emotional implications are every bit as overwhelming as they are with IVF, and that the isolation is exacerbated by the fact that most women are going through it alone.’
Questionable statistics and the emotional minefield aside, none of the women WH spoke to regret freezing their eggs. Indeed, success means different things to different people. For Danni, having 11 eggs on ice has given her the headspace to enjoy dating again, though she’s clear that if she doesn’t meet someone in the next couple of years who she wants to have children with, she’ll begin exploring sperm donation in order to become a parent.
Kate met her current partner shortly after making the decision to freeze her eggs, and though she hasn’t made any decisions yet, the procedure has given her the peace of mind she hoped for. As for Sarah, seeing a life coach has helped her stop agonising over the future and reach a place of pragmatism.
‘It’s the very nature of this technology that makes it so uniquely complex,’ Dr Baldwin explains. ‘Egg freezing is a tantalising and compelling technology.
It gives women the opportunity to become a mother – but with no guarantees – as well as the seductive possibility of avoiding future regret; a sense of reclaiming control over their fertility and feeling they’ve done everything they could possibly do.’
In an industry where hope is a commodity, it pays to read the small print.
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