The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) announced that the ‘experimental’ label should be lifted from what many people refer to as ‘social egg freezing’ (vitrifying eggs for non-medical reasons) due to the now much higher success rates. For numerous years the technique of egg vitrification was not fully recognised for women that wish to preserve their eggs and delay motherhood purely because they aren’t yet ready to start a family. This technique has been of most benefit to young female cancer patients hoping to give themselves a chance of a family in the future once they have undergone cancer therapy.
However, though a number of UK clinics have been performing the technique, there are not large numbers of patients that have come back to use the vitrified eggs (due to the nature of patients that have been using vitrification). For this reason, there has been an element of uncertainty about the technique. So does this announcement mean that ‘social’ egg freezing is the answer for many women struggling to balance careers or finding Mr Right with having a family? It is a widely recognised fact that more and more women are delaying motherhood until later in life.
Biologically, a woman’s natural fertility is at its highest when she is in her twenties. However, the reality often means that for many reasons (some beyond her control) a woman is unable to become a mother at a time that she wants to. This often means waiting until her mid or even late thirties when her fertility is much lower – fertility declines very sharply after the age of thirty five. So can we now ‘cheat biology’ and offer more women the chance to preserve their fertility and delay motherhood?
It is important to remember that although success rates are now very good (a woman using embryos created from warmed eggs that were vitrified at a young age has approximately the same chance of pregnancy as a young woman using fresh eggs in IVF/ICSI) there is no guarantee that the eggs will survive the vitrifying and warming process or that they will result in good quality embryos following insemination.
Therefore, when it comes to vitrifying eggs, the younger a woman is when the technique is performed, the better the outcome. Younger women are more likely to produce a higher number of good quality eggs in the first place which stand a higher chance of surviving the process. An extra point to consider here is that the younger the woman is, the less stimulation she will need with IVF drugs and therefore the less risk to her (and reduced cost). Many women that approach fertility centres enquiring about egg vitrification for social reasons are already in their mid or even late thirties and already at a point in their life when their fertility is reduced. This cohort of women has less to gain from egg vitrification.
Of course, for those women that do choose the technique there are wider points to consider as a result of delaying motherhood for social reasons. For example, will we see a growing trend where the generation gap increases? Will this mean that fewer grandparents are around to see their grandchildren or that older mothers will find themselves juggling caring for their children while nursing frail parents?
Without doubt the technique should continue to be used for young females diagnosed with cancer or medical conditions that could affect their chances of having genetically related children but in other situations the technique should be considered carefully.
Here at the Herts & Essex Fertility Centre we would always give honest advice to anybody considering egg vitrification as to whether the technique is for you or not, and an indication of your realistic chances.