How 'social egg-freezing' is putting motherhood on ice

The ethical concerns with social egg-freezing relate more to the giving of false hope than to the procedure itself.
The ethical concerns with social egg-freezing relate more to the giving of false hope than to the procedure itself. 

Regina Hill is single and has recently turned 38 - the age when her fertility is about to go into steep decline. Single motherhood doesn't appeal to her. And if she does find a partner in the next year or so, she doesn't want to rush headlong into parenthood.

But the Collingwood business consultant wants to keep the option of motherhood open. So, like increasing numbers of women in their 30s, she has opted for a treatment originally designed for those facing fertility-damaging cancer therapies.

She is about to pay almost $12,000 to have un-fertilised eggs extracted from her ovaries and then frozen and stored until she is ready to try for a baby.

Ms Hill is one of 14 women who have arranged for "social egg-freezing" at Melbourne IVF over the past 18 months. A further 20 women have recently inquired about the service, which is not advertised. Even Monash IVF, which has traditionally focused on freezing ovarian tissue for cancer patients, now offers the procedure - although it is not promoting the fact either.

In Brisbane each year, more than 100 women in their 30s are having their eggs frozen by the Queensland Fertility Group, which advertises its services to GPs and in newspapers and leaflets in women's health clinics.

The main issue is that we don't know what the risks are (for a child) coming from a frozen egg

Regina Hill will begin the first steps in her pre-operative regime next week, and her eggs will be "retrieved", under anaesthetic, in July. A former lawyer with an MBA, she sees the $11,665 she is shelling out for Melbourne IVF's "lifestyle egg freezing treatment" as money well spent. The cost is so high because Medicare rebates do not apply to procedures performed for social reasons.

"I know that I am unlikely to be in the position to be thinking realistically about having children until I am in my 40s," she says. "I am a pragmatist, and it would be better to be (trying to conceive) with 38-year-old eggs."

Elwood hair colourist Katherine Challancin, 37, has been doing similar calculations. She contacted Melbourne IVF to ask about the procedure, but is worried about the side effects of the hormonal treatments. Nevertheless, she is certain that the treatment is her best way of keeping the option of motherhood open, while she spends a few more years travelling, working in an AIDS orphanage in Ecuador, and spending time with her partner. "I am not ready for a baby yet - and my partner isn't ready," she says.

Melbourne IVF senior research scientist Dr Debra Gook began her pioneering work on egg-freezing more than a decade ago. Since 1995, more than 600 young women undergoing fertility-threatening cancer treatment have had eggs, embryos and ovarian tissue frozen and stored at Melbourne IVF's Victoria Street headquarters and at the Royal Women's Hospital.

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But "social egg-freezing" has become more widespread over the past five years as techniques for egg-freezing have improved. Melbourne IVF, which has done 32 "social" egg freezes in the past decade, has now had two babies born from such eggs.

The Queensland Fertility Group has reported seven successful pregnancies from frozen eggs. Two of the pregnancies, one resulting in twins, were the result of social freezing.

According to Melbourne IVF fertility specialist Dr Kate Stern, new techniques have improved the survival rate of thawed eggs from one in five to six in 10.

"Now with 10 eggs, we would expect six to survive, and ultimately make three embryos. Even with non-frozen eggs, only 50per cent will fertilise," Dr Stern said.

She said social egg-freezing had never been marketed and interest had come from patients. Most of those seeking the procedure were in their late 30s and early 40s. But Dr Stern said they did not conform to the stereotype of women "putting motherhood on hold" because they were too busy with their careers.

Sometimes they seek the clinic's help because they have not found a compatible partner until later in life. Some have been planning their fertility as a single woman, others are freezing eggs and hoping to find a partner.

Dr Stern said she turned away about 5 per cent of women seeking social freezing, mainly because she felt they couldn't grasp the realistic success rates of the treatment. "We need to get the message across that women need to think about motherhood a lot earlier," she said.

"Our major concern is that egg-freezing not be seen as an alternative or a reason to delay childbirth. Women should not see this as a guarantee that their fertility will be assured. The last thing we want to be doing is condoning the increasing tendency to delay childbearing."

Dr Jim Catt, director of embryology at Monash IVF, said social egg-freezing was not an insurance policy. "It's a way of storing something that may, or may not, be of use in the future," he said.

Bioethicist Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, associate dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, said his ethical concerns with social egg-freezing related more to the giving of false hope than to the procedure itself.

"My main concern is that it not be described as a successful technology," he said.

The freezing of eggs did not prompt the same ethical concerns as the freezing of embryos because "nobody considers the egg to have any intrinsic value".

"The main issue is that we don't know what the risks are (for a child) coming from a frozen egg," he said.

EGG-FREEZING HOW IT IS DONE

  1. The woman undergoes hormonal stimulation so that a crop of 10-15 eggs will mature.
  2. Under anaesthetic, the eggs are removed with a very fine needle.
  3. The eggs are frozen, by immersing each egg in a series of fluid solutions that protect its cellular structure.
  4. The eggs, are stored in stainless steel tanks filled with liquid nitrogen. Melbourne IVF research scientist Dr Debra Gook, "slow freezing" and "vitrification" - a kind of fast freezing, - have an equivalent success rate to embryo freezing.

SOURCE: MELBOURNE IVF

This story first appeared in Sunday Life magazine, in the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age.

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