Fertility miracle or cruel myth
Freezing your eggs seemed a dream come true for high-fliers wanting to delay motherhood. A decade on, it's produced just 12 babies. So why are women still spending a fortune on it
21:55 GMT, 7 November 2012
Waiting for Mr Right: Julia Palmer has had her eggs frozen until she finds a partner to start a family with
As she flicks back her immaculate, highlighted hair and waits for a friend to join her for dinner in an upmarket London restaurant, Julia Palmer has the air of a woman for whom life has gone rather well.
The interior designer from Chelsea has a fantastic figure, a successful career, a beautiful home, a large disposable income and a fulfilling social life.
But three years ago, the one thing missing from her otherwise charmed life — a family — caused her to begin to panic that time was running out on her biological clock.
Today, she is still single at 42, but the pressure is off, because Julia has had her eggs frozen, giving herself a much bigger window of opportunity when it comes to having a family of her own.
She is not alone in her forward thinking. Hollywood star Jennifer Aniston is rumoured to have frozen her eggs, and in a recent episode of the U.S. reality television show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kim injected herself with hormones in preparation for doing the same.
In Britain, women are delaying childbirth as never before: the average woman here has her first child at 31, compared to 24 in 1962.
There’s no doubt that fertility wanes dramatically after the age of 35; beyond 40, the chance of a woman getting pregnant using her own eggs is about three in ten. But the reality of egg freezing is a long way from the hype.
The chances of conceiving a baby from a frozen egg are low, and preparing for it is a painful, costly process involving potent fertility drugs, chemicals and surgery.
Ten years ago, when the first baby was born from a frozen egg in the UK, it seemed technology had finally delivered the ultimate blow to the biological clock. However, since then, just 12 babies have been born from frozen eggs in this country.
Nevertheless, a report by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) says egg freezing is no longer experimental technology and has recommended that women freeze their eggs in their 20s and 30s to help them conceive later in life.
Astonishingly, American egg-freezing facilities hard-sell ‘fertility preservation’ to the parents of single 30-something women, who pay for egg-freezing cycles for their daughters to increase their chances of having grandchildren.
When Julia Palmer was 30, freezing her eggs was the last thing on her mind: she was certain that, before too long, she would be married with at least two children.
Her faith seemed well-founded when, in her late 30s, Julia began a relationship with a man.
‘I could see him being the father of my children,’ she says. But her partner had other ideas. 'He wouldn’t commit because of his circumstances at work and our lives were going in different directions,’ she says. A year after breaking it off, and six months after her 40th birthday, Julia began to think about having her eggs frozen.
'Women who are fertile and freeze their
eggs to delay having a child could be putting themselves through pain,
risk and expense, and be unlikely to get a baby at the end of it'
Relying on meeting the right man in time to have children seemed too uncertain, so Julia had a consultation at the London Fertility Centre in November 2011, when she was 41.
‘They said that if I froze my eggs, the likelihood of my having a baby was only 10 to 20 per cent,’ she says. ‘At my age, the chances of success were low, but I wanted to do something to alleviate the feeling that I would miss out on motherhood.’
In January, Julia began the process of freezing her eggs by injecting herself daily with hormones and drugs to induce hyper-ovulation.
‘I responded well to the medication, but it was awfully painful, and there was a constant ache in my abdomen, which had doubled in size,’ she says.
Two weeks later, Julia’s eggs were collected from her during an operation under general anaesthetic in the private fertility clinic.
Twelve eggs were frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees. /11/07/article-2229454-15D02CB5000005DC-673_306x677.jpg” width=”306″ height=”677″ alt=”Family planning: Jennifer Aniston, left, is rumoured to have frozen her eggs, and in a recent episode of the U.S. reality television show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kim injected herself with hormones in preparation for doing the same” class=”blkBorder” />
Family planning: Jennifer Aniston, left, is rumoured to have
frozen her eggs, and in a recent episode of the U.S. reality television
show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kim injected herself with
hormones in preparation for doing the same
‘I’m proud of myself for having done this. It’s helped me relax more about future relationships, because I feel the pressure is off.
‘Friends have commented that I am a different person to 12 months ago — stronger and more confident. I’m open about the egg freezing with my female friends, and a lot of them wanted to know more about it.’
About 6,500 eggs have been stored in Britain in the decade since egg freezing was licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Many eggs are harvested from women whose fertility has been impaired by cancer treatment, but increasing numbers are stored for women such as Julia, who are waiting until later in life to start a family.
Egg freezing is funded by the NHS if carried out for women having cancer treatment. Otherwise it costs 5,000 per cycle, then 200 a year to pay for safe storage of the eggs.
If a woman chooses to thaw her eggs, an IVF procedure called Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) is used to insert a single sperm into the egg, which costs 2,000.
But delaying having children by egg freezing is a gamble against huge odds, and there are fears that women might be lulled into a false sense of security about their future chances of having a family.
‘Saying something is no longer experimental is a far cry from saying it’s going to work,’ says Professor Robert Harrison, a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician, former president of the International Federation of Fertility Societies (IFFS) and author of The Smart Guide To Infertility.
'Instead of buying shoes or handbags, I have given myself the chance to have children and a family one day'
‘Women who are fertile and freeze their eggs to delay having a child could be putting themselves through pain, risk and expense, and be unlikely to get a baby at the end of it.’
Professor Harrison says: ‘We don’t have enough babies born in Britain from thawed eggs to know for certain whether egg freezing is effective or safe in terms of the long-term health of children.’
Last month, a magazine poll of 3,000 British women found one in five aged 28 to 45 would consider egg freezing.
The number who froze their eggs in Britain has increased five-fold in a decade. Yet the biological reality is that by the time most women consider egg freezing, it’s already too late.
‘I get many calls from women around the age of 38 who want their eggs frozen,’ says Dr Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midlands Fertility Services, where 207 women have had their eggs frozen, and where half of the British babies born from frozen eggs have been conceived.
‘A frozen egg from a 38-year-old will be better than a fresh one from a 42-year-old, but pregnancy is still not very likely.’
Professor Bill Ledger, former president of the British Fertility Society and professor of reproductive medicine at the University of New South Wales, Australia, says most experts discourage women over 36 from freezing their eggs because the odds are against them conceiving.
‘Biologically speaking, the ideal age for a woman to start thinking about freezing her eggs is 30,’ he says. ‘Then she has a 50/50 chance of having at least one baby later.’
He explains that the chance of a woman having a baby from eggs she freezes at the age of 40 is only 10 per cent.
‘We could end up with a generation of disappointed women who put faith in a process that probably won’t give them a baby,’ he says.
Plan b: Kim Glass has frozen her eggs as back up in case she doesn't conceive naturally
Even freezing your eggs at 30 could have its downsides, according to Dr Lockwood.
‘Will it mean a woman waits around all her life for Mr Perfect, knowing she has healthy eggs from her 30-year-old self in the freezer, but then becomes bitter because she has rejected all the Mr Pretty Well Good Enoughs and found herself single and childless at 45, with frozen eggs that turned out not to work’ she says.
No one would blame women such as Kim Glass for gambling that the technique will work.
Aged 36, she discovered a small lump in her left breast just six months after she and her husband had separated. It was cancerous, but was caught early. With radiotherapy and surgery, she would survive.
Kim, now 39, who is an IT business analyst from Blackheath, South-East London, says: ‘I was going through so much emotionally, and foremost in my mind was whether I’d be able to have children after the treatment.’
Kim was referred to Guy’s Hospital Fertility Unit in London, where her eggs were frozen in February 2010.
‘I had to go to the clinic almost daily for monitoring, and the day they removed my eggs was emotionally fraught,’ she says. ‘I blamed the drugs. The minute I came round from the anaesthetic, I burst into tears. I felt so alone.’
Kim met her partner, Pete, who is 41 and works in logistics, at the start of last year.
‘I put all my cards on the table early on,’ she says. ‘I told Pete I’d had my eggs frozen and was really keen to be a mother quite soon. I thought he would run a mile, but he didn’t. He said he was up for being a father.’
The couple are planning to marry next April. ‘I hope I will get pregnant naturally,’ says Kim. ‘I will probably give it between six and eight months, and if I’m not pregnant by then I will look into thawing my eggs. But I know there’s no guarantee, and that’s hard to accept.’
Until recently, eggs were frozen using ‘slow-freeze’ technology. But, in 2008, a new process called vitrification or ‘flash-freezing’ — which chills the eggs in a fraction of a second — was licensed in the UK.
‘Early evidence shows that eggs frozen by vitrification may work as well as fresh eggs, in terms of the chances of achieving pregnancy,’ says Professor Ledger.
But there are concerns that the freezing and thawing process may damage egg quality.
Chemicals applied to the egg wall during flash-freezing could potentially damage the egg, according to Dr Magdy Asaad, clinical director of the London Fertility Centre, where women up to the age of 44 can freeze their eggs.
‘Only eight out of ten eggs survive the thawing process,’ he says. ‘So the chances of getting a baby from a frozen egg are about 1 to 3 per cent for each egg.’
And Professor Harrison says that egg freezing may be risky for healthy women.
In around five out of 100 cases, for example, ovaries over-react to fertility drugs, resulting in Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS). This is a condition where ovaries can swell to several times their normal size.
Dawn Brooke, who gave birth aged 59 in 1997, is thought to be Britain's oldest natural mother
Fluid may leak into the abdomen as a result and, in rare cases, cause internal bleeding, heart attack or even death.
For Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, 42, a journalist who froze her eggs at 38 and chronicled her experience in her book In Her Own Sweet Time, fertility drugs caused side-effects so gruelling she had to stop her first cycle of treatment.
‘It felt like the worst case of pre-menstrual tension you could ever imagine,’ says Rachel. ‘I felt dizzy and nauseous, I had stomach cramps and backache, and a swollen middle where my ovaries had enlarged. As well as all that, I was over-emotional.’
Rachel was suffering from a mild case of OHSS — despite this, she went through another cycle of egg freezing and ended up with eight of her eggs on ice.
A new technique used in some UK clinics and known as Agonist Triggering uses milder hormones to stimulate egg production, which dramatically reduces the risk of a woman suffering from OHSS, says Professor Ledger.
Meanwhile, back in Chelsea, Julia Palmer believes egg freezing technology could be as significant for women as the contraceptive pill. She accepts that it carries no guarantees, but still sees freezing her eggs as an insurance policy against her future infertility.
‘It’s cost just under 10,000 of my savings,’ she says. ‘As I see it, instead of buying shoes or handbags, I have given myself the chance to have children and a family one day.’
So is she prepared for the possibility that it might not work
‘I am willing to take the risk,’ she says. ‘I now have four different chances of having a baby when I find the right man.
‘I can do it naturally, with IVF using my own fresh eggs, I can thaw out and use my frozen eggs, or I could use a surrogate to carry my eggs for me.
‘Hopefully, everything will happen naturally, but if it doesn’t, it’s comforting to know that I have 12 eggs in the freezer. It’s good to know they are there.’