A quickly evolving process to flash-freeze female eggs—thus preserving fertility—is changing the way women think about having families.
Like Jennifer Hayes, more and more Americans are waiting longer and longer to marry and start families. In fact, the median age for an American woman to get married for the first time is 26—up from 22 in 1980—and the average age at which she has her first child has risen to 25 from 21 in 1970. Those statistics mean that some American women are seriously pushing the outer limits of normal human fertility.
As such, women are turning to technology to nudge those boundaries outward. The emerging field of oocyte cryopreservation—or egg freezing—is one of the newest methods through which women are hoping to preserve their ability to have a biological child beyond what are considered typical child-bearing years.
Scientists began freezing embryos in the ’80s, but unfertilized eggs, which contain large amounts of liquid prone to viability-destroying crystallization, proved trickier. In 2004, embryologists began experimenting with a new flash-freezing method called vitrification that yielded better results. In the past three years, peer-reviewed studies have illustrated a dramatic change: Before 2007, fewer than a dozen live births from frozen eggs were reported; since then, more than 1,500 babies have been born from frozen eggs worldwide. A literature review by the co-founder of New York University School of Medicine’s Fertility Center reported that babies born from frozen eggs had the same rate of congenital abnormalities as naturally conceived infants, and clinics such as Denver’s CCRM and the NYU center report pregnancy rates for frozen eggs that are similar to those for “fresh” eggs used in traditional IVF.
This technology—and the recent successes it’s had—is ushering in a new era of choice for American women, similar to the one unleashed by the birth control pill in the 1960s. Birth control separated sex and conception to create sexual freedom. But that freedom had certain consequences, of which one was a major uptick in age-related infertility. Egg freezing—at least to some degree—separates fertility from the proverbial biological clock, increasing women’s ability to choose when, how, and with whom to have children.
Dr. William Schoolcraft, founder and medical director of the CCRM, started using the new vitrification method five years ago. Once he added the procedure to his already nationally and internationally known fertility practice, word spread quickly. The number of patients coming to his Lone Tree clinic (there are three CCRM clinics in the metro Denver area) for the process has doubled each of the last three years, rising from 21 in 2010 to 49 in 2011 to a projected 75 to 100 in 2012. Currently, roughly half of Schoolcraft’s clients are freezing their eggs before undergoing treatments like chemotherapy (known to harm the reproductive system), but Schoolcraft expects the number of healthy clients who come simply for fertility preservation to quickly surpass that percentage.
“Traditionally, if women waited until their late-30s or 40s it was too late and the only option was to find a donor egg. This way, they can act as their own donor,” says Schoolcraft, who began freezing embryos at UCLA during his residency in the early 1980s and decided to dedicate his career to solving infertility. “It’s exciting for me because I talk to 42-year-olds who just got married last year and frequently I have to tell them they’re past the point of getting pregnant,” he explains. “They say they wish they’d known about this technology five years ago.”
That may be the case, but the process isn’t truly accessible to everyone and it doesn’t serve as a guarantee that a woman will have a successful pregnancy. Egg freezing is extremely expensive, costing between $10,000 and $20,000. And the process is still considered experimental by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), although that designation dates to 2006 and is under review. “There’s so much research being done in the field, and as more data becomes available that status might change,” says Dr. Samantha Pfeifer, chair of ASRM’s practice committee and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Although Schoolcraft is confident in his roughly 60 percent success rate (comparable to his IVF rates) and pleased with the 50 live births he’s produced using the egg-freezing technology since 2009, he tells patients there are no assurances and describes the egg-freezing procedure as an insurance policy or backup plan. “No one’s saying not to try to get pregnant conventionally; it’s just one more opportunity that women who don’t freeze their own eggs wouldn’t have,” he says.