Don’t Depend on Those Frozen Eggs

If you’re a woman worried about how to balance work and family, it’s a good time to job-hunt in Silicon Valley. This week it was revealed that Facebook and Apple will include egg freezing in their benefits packages. After receiving your job offer, you can order your hormone shots and be on your way to stashing away some good eggs so you can ascend to Sheryl Sandberg-esque greatness and still have a chance of having a biological family in your 40s and beyond.

Reactions to the news have varied from accolades for making the expensive procedure available, to the cynical accusation that corporate America is avoiding creating family-friendly work environments under the guise of reproductive empowerment. Yet amid all the debate over egg freezing’s role in women’s careers, there has been less talk about the still serious limitations of the medical procedure.

The first generation of women who froze their eggs were hit over the head with warnings not to wait too long to start their families and to think of their frozen fertility as a backup. Such cautions are drowned out by the current enthusiasm — epitomized by information sessions rebranded as “egg freezing parties” and held at swanky hotels. We are forgetting an essential fact: Egg freezing isn’t going to work for all women. Success varies according to the expertise of doctors and the quality of eggs, but even the best fertility centers report that a woman’s chance of pregnancy per embryo transferred to the uterus is between 30 and 50 percent. The overall chance of success rises if a woman freezes enough eggs for numerous attempts.

It makes sense for a newly divorced 39-year-old to take that risk. But what about the 32-year-old who’s encouraged to freeze by her new job perk? Will she make different decisions about work and motherhood that she might later regret?

The first generation of women who froze their eggs were hit over the head with warnings not to wait too long to start their families and to think of their frozen fertility as a backup. Such cautions are drowned out by the current enthusiasm — epitomized by information sessions rebranded as “egg freezing parties” and held at swanky hotels. We are forgetting an essential fact: Egg freezing isn’t going to work for all women. Success varies according to the expertise of doctors and the quality of eggs, but even the best fertility centers report that a woman’s chance of pregnancy per embryo transferred to the uterus is between 30 and 50 percent. The overall chance of success rises if a woman freezes enough eggs for numerous attempts.

It makes sense for a newly divorced 39-year-old to take that risk. But what about the 32-year-old who’s encouraged to freeze by her new job perk? Will she make different decisions about work and motherhood that she might later regret?

There are no official statistics on how many women have undergone the procedure, but two of the country’s oldest and largest programs — Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York in Manhattan and New York University Langone Medical Center — report that their cases have more than doubled in the last two years and that the age of the average freezer has dropped to about 36 from 39 nearly a decade ago. Other doctors say they’ve seen a stream of even younger patients, some in their 20s.

This is a positive development, since doctors have long urged women to freeze by their mid-30s, rather than wait until their egg quality is deteriorating. More women will have the option, as other companies surely follow Facebook and Apple’s example, and as prices continue to drop. The cost of stimulating one’s ovaries and surgically extracting anywhere from six to 10 eggs is typically around $10,000. Many clinics offer lower fees or multi-cycle discounts, and one of the biggest centers charges $12,500 for up to four cycles or 20 eggs, whichever comes first. But even with that many eggs, there’s no guarantee.

Women who are anxious to preserve their fertility during their prime baby-making years should take advantage of every opportunity to freeze. But despite egg freezing’s new cool factor, they should never forget its power to disappoint.

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It.

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