Egg Timer

A quickly evolving process to flash-freeze female eggs—thus preserving fertility—is changing the way women think about having families.
January 2013

According to the experts, too many women don’t understand fertility until they learn they no longer have it. ASRM’s Pfeifer says it’s common for patients in their mid- and even late-40s to blithely assume they can get pregnant, merely because they feel young and healthy. “It doesn’t work that way,” she says. Many women who are freezing their eggs say they wish they’d realized earlier how big a role age plays in the ability to conceive, instead of looking to movie stars having babies in their 40s—often through donor eggs—to guide their sense of what’s possible. “Thirty is the new 20 and our whole lives are being pushed back,” says Brigitte Adams, a San Francisco marketing consultant who came to Denver to freeze her eggs at the age of 39. “We think because we’re looking younger and living longer that our window of fertility would be extended, too. But it isn’t.”

One of CCRM’s patients, Renée,* a Denverite who works in financial reporting, was surprised to learn that even at 33, she would have a difficult time conceiving naturally. Recently divorced, she’d elected to freeze her eggs to eliminate “the pressure of having to find somebody and immediately have a baby.” When clinic physicians tested her hormone levels, they found they were similar to those of a woman in her mid-40s. They also discovered that she had a lower-than-normal resting follicle count (number of eggs) for someone her age. Neither problem had been detected during her annual gynecologic exams, as those visits don’t typically include such tests. Six months and $20,000 later, Renée had 21 eggs frozen in storage. Had she waited to find a mate and to conceive naturally, having a child would likely have become even more difficult and more expensive.

While Renée paid her own egg-freezing bill, many patients have help. Hayes’ family assisted her with the medical payments, while Adams’ parents chipped in around $7,000, which paid for half. “It was a family decision because they know how much I want children and they want that to happen for me,” says Hayes, who points out that compared to adoption, egg freezing with the required subsequent IVF process to fertilize the egg and implant the embryo is generally less expensive—and less complicated. “No one questions parents paying for a wedding; why would they question this?”

In addition to the financial commitment, oocyte vitrification entails a physical dedication that varies in intensity. All oocyte vitrification patients must inject themselves with hormones daily for an average of 10 days to stimulate egg maturation. After that, patients are sedated for about 15 minutes while the eggs are harvested in a minimally invasive procedure. But the length of the process and how many cycles it requires depends on each woman’s fertility factors. Hayes’ process lasted six weeks, while Renée’s lasted six months.

Hayes says she realizes that her frozen eggs don’t come with a certificate that reads, “Congrats on your future arrival.” She knows there is no guarantee. But she feels relieved that she’s done everything she can to sustain her dream of motherhood. “What I care about,” she says, “is that I won’t have any regrets.”