Photography by Eric Helgas for Yahoo Style
Apple and Facebook made headlines in the fall of last year when they both announced that they would cover infertility treatments, including egg freezing for female employees who wanted the option, up to $20,000. The immediate reactions were mixed: some said it was progressive and beneficial to women, while others believed it was pure evil, a way for corporations to subliminally convince women to prolong childbearing. These debates were quickly followed up by reports of women attending so-called “egg freezing parties” both in NYC and the San Francisco area, in which they could learn about their options for prolonging their fertility. It’s a complex and rather fraught issue that has many women wondering whether they should put all their eggs into (fate’s) one basket or take advantage of available technology.
Dr. Elizabeth Fino, a fertility specialist at NYU’s Langone Fertility Center, has seen a trend towards younger women seeking out consults for egg freezing over the last few years. Although the majority of the women she sees for this are in their mid to late 30s, she credits gynecologists, who are more proactively discussing egg freezing as an option with their patients, for the increased interest of younger women. Since the “experimental” label was removed a few years ago, it’s now increasingly included as a part of routine family planning discussions. “In general, under 35 is where we see the best results [in egg freezing]. Between 30 and 35 is ideal,” Dr. Fino says. “There’s not any good scientific data to say it should be done under age 30.”
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and for a variety of reasons. Elizabeth Higgins Clark, a 30-year-old actress who has appeared on “The Mindy Project,” froze her eggs when she was 29. “I was single at the time and I’m an actor,” Clark says. “I didn’t think I was in a place where I could be a good mother or a happy mother because I really wanted more time to focus on the career that I loved, but hadn’t experienced as much success in as I would have liked.” While she didn’t want to discuss her current romantic situation, Clark’s is an example where her career was the impetus for banking her eggs.
Brenda Wu, 24, is about to start medical school and recently went to see Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a fertility specialist in the Bay Area, for an egg banking consult. She shares some of Clark’s concerns. “I can see myself having kids way late, like mid to late 30s. I know I want them eventually, but med school is a four year time commitment and then after that a residency,” Wu says. “I wouldn’t want to have a kid in the middle of all that, and maybe not even until after establishing a practice.”
Photography by Eric Helgas for Yahoo Style
While both of these women’s decisions were driven by their careers, most women who freeze their eggs are single and concerned about the prospect of finding the right partner before their fertility deteriorates. “My egg freezing consults are the most emotionally charged consults that I have, especially for women in their late 30s and 40s. They never thought that they would be in my office talking about this,” Dr. Eyvazzadeh says. Dr. Fino thinks it’s a way for women to get a bit of control over uncertainty. “The younger ones that you see are just being smart about it,” she says. “They’re like, ‘OK, I still want to have the ability to make smart decisions and choose my partner not based on my reproductive clock.’”
Dr. Johnica Blevans, a 37-year-old anesthesiologist, (she is also Dr. Eyvazzadeh’s sister), froze her eggs at age 32 after getting fed up with her dating life. “I froze my eggs because it took me so long to find my husband. I dated and dated and then I was actually in a relationship for a year while I was going through the egg freezing process,” Dr. Blevans says. “I told him, ‘I am freezing my eggs right now essentially because I see no future with you.’ It was a very hard decision to make because you have to come to terms with the reality that you’re aging and that your life isn’t going exactly the way you want it to be going. That’s a very hard reality to confront.” She’s since met the man who is now her husband, has a one-year-old son, and is currently pregnant with her second child. She didn’t use her frozen eggs for either of her pregnancies, though she will continue to pay to store them. “You never empty a bank account. If I have the means to keep them in storage, I’ll do it,” she says.
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Not every woman is as self-possessed as Dr. Blevans, and egg harvesting can be both emotionally and financially taxing. The entire process, which involves a consult, testing, doctor’s fees, injections to stimulate ovulation, the harvesting procedure, and yearly storage, costs anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. Storage is generally the cheapest part, costing a few hundred dollars a year, and is often prorated lower the longer eggs are kept in storage. Dr. Fino notes that insurance will often cover the initial consult, ultrasound testing, and blood work that go into establishing an “overall estimate of ovarian reserves” because it counts as “procreative management.” Often this initial consult is enough to assuage a woman’s fertility fears for a few years without going through the entire egg banking process.
Both the specialists and patients consulted here all agree that companies should be commended rather than condemned for offering an egg freezing benefit. Dr. Fino scoffs at the notion that companies are trying to control women’s reproduction. “I look at it as a huge plus, not as a backdoor way to entice women to delay if they don’t want to delay,” she says. “Women are smart enough to know when they want to have their families and they’re going to make that decision regardless. I think those progressive companies are smart in trying to really keep their employees happy.”
Dr. Eyvazzadeh suggests something even slightly more radical in the egg freezing debate. Most of the women in their 20s who are undergoing egg harvesting do so as donors for other people, and they get paid for it. She would like to see egg banks start banking the eggs of these young women for their personal use as part of their payment. “I try to talk to these egg donors and I say, ‘We’ll freeze some of these eggs for you and you’ll donate 20 to the couple.’ But no one’s taken me up on the offer,” she says. Donors get paid about $5,000, and banks can charge couples undergoing infertility treatments upwards of $15,000 for eggs. Freezing eggs as a young woman theoretically won’t affect quality later on. “There is no such thing as freezer burn on the egg. As long as humans exist who know how to take eggs out that have been vitrified [frozen] and thaw them, then you’re going to do just fine,” Dr. Eyvazzadeh notes. “Hundreds of thousands of babies have been born from vitrified embryos.”
Obviously there are a lot of ethical questions here that will need to be answered as the practice of egg freezing becomes more available and popular, particularly if more companies start covering the procedure. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) published a practice guideline in January 2013 after the procedure was no longer deemed to be experimental. At the end of the guideline its authors state: “Data on the safety, efficacy, cost-effectiveness, and emotional risks of elective oocyte cryopreservation are insufficient to recommend elective oocyte cryopreservation. Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing.” A rep from the ASRM didn’t offer an updated recommendation when called for comment, so this is still the official position of that organization.
Clearly more study is necessary and time will tell whether the technology is ultimately helpful for women. One can certainly argue that providing better maternity leave, flexible work schedules, and childcare benefits would be a more practical and well-utilized benefit for women in the workplace. Still, some consider egg freezing a nice insurance policy. “I think it was the right decision for me. But honestly, I’m not a success story yet,” Clark says. “I’m not on the other side of it yet, but I must say, I feel a lot more calm now than I did before.”