Frozen in time: How fertility clinics are targeting millennial women

Survey reveals students' fertility knowledge

More than half of young women do not know when their fertility will decline, an Australian study has revealed.

New York: Jennifer Lannon lay, her feet propped in stirrups, on an examining table at Extend Fertility, an egg-freezing clinic in Manhattan. A screen at her right displayed the results of her ultrasound, the image closely monitored by Lannon and her doctor, Joshua Klein.

How many eggs could she expect to see? she asked. She would likely end up with some 20, Klein told her. He was making no promises.

"But to the extent you can ensure fertility later," he said, "you are in very good shape."

Jennifer Lannon attends an appointment at Ensure Fertility for monitoring before having her eggs frozen, in New York ...
Jennifer Lannon attends an appointment at Ensure Fertility for monitoring before having her eggs frozen, in New York last month. Photo: New York Times

She ought to be.

Lannon, who works for Dot Health, a website that stores participants' medical data, is 26, more than a decade younger than most women freezing their eggs in the hope of maximising their chances, when they are ready, of conceiving and bearing a healthy child. She has no known reproductive issues or urgent health concerns. But in her mind the clock is ticking.

"Fertility declines at 22," she repeated like an incantation in a post-exam interview, information she had picked up at a medical conference she attended as part of her research for Freeze.Health, an informational site she introduced this year with her business partner, Sidonia Rose Swarm.

A self-defined take-charge personality, Lannon would be taking no chances. Her objective, she said, was "to know that later in life I'm going to have the best shot at having viable frozen eggs for when I need them".

She is also, she knows, a target for the many egg-freezing clinics springing up across the United States, facilities that tout the procedure as a breezy, accessible and eminently sensible lifestyle choice for the youngest members of the millennial generation.

Fertility preservation, as egg freezing is known, "used to resonate primarily with women in their late 30s", said Susan Herzberg, president of Prelude Fertility, a US network of fertility clinics. These days the market is skewing younger, the result in part of a promotional shift.


"We are now targeting women in their 20s and early 30s," Herzberg said. Her company, like many others, is intent on spreading the gospel that for the youngest consumers, as she said, "the process has never been better, faster or cheaper, or more likely to yield a better store of high-quality eggs."

A half-dozen years ago, around the time freezing technology had advanced to the point that the American Society for Reproductive Medicine no longer deemed the procedure experimental, clinics like Prelude, Pacific NW Fertility in Seattle, Shady Grove in Washington and Ova in Chicago began reminding their youngest target customers that fertility is finite and begins to wane as early as one's 20s. Those clinics once catered almost exclusively to women at the older end of their childbearing years.

Their messaging, generally friendly and fact-based but in some cases alarmist in tone, varies from Ova's invitations to "freeze for your future" to Extend's more urgent "eggs are a non-renewable resource". The exhortations are underscored by cheery images variously showing gaggles of young women gathered over drinks or ambling arm-in-arm down a city street.

An advertisement for Prelude Fertility, a US network of fertility clinics which urges young women to freeze their eggs ...
An advertisement for Prelude Fertility, a US network of fertility clinics which urges young women to freeze their eggs for the future.  Photo: Supplied

To provide intelligence to consumers, and presumably whip up business, some clinics are hosts to egg-freezing parties, inviting guests to take in facts and figures along with champagne and canapes.

Others glamourise the procedure in Instagram posts that feature women like Kaitlyn Bristowe, a lead on the 11th season of The Bachelorette in the US, who have tweeted independently about their own freezing experiences. Kindbody, a clinic in New York, takes an even more aggressive approach, inviting potential clients to hop aboard a pop-up van to have their hormone levels tested.

Clinics have further eased barriers with significant price drops. Once as high as $US19,000 ($26,400) for the cost of a single cycle, fees today can vary from about $US4000 to $US7000 for a procedure that entails one to two weeks of birth control pills to turn off natural hormones, nine or 10 days of hormone injections to stimulate egg production, followed - once the eggs have matured - by retrieval and freezing. (Initial consultation and storage are not generally included.)

Egg-freezing clinics are aggressively courting a new generation, and younger millennials are heeding the call.
Egg-freezing clinics are aggressively courting a new generation, and younger millennials are heeding the call.  Photo: New York Times

Moreover, some boutique-like freezing facilities offer financing incentives to clients still advancing in their careers or paying off college debt.

No surprise, then, that millennials are heeding the call, intent on securing their reproductive futures. They form part of the population of some 76,000 women expected to freeze their eggs in the US this year, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

Three years ago, Valerie Landis, who froze her eggs in her early 30s, began documenting her experience on Eggsperience, a blog that she has since expanded to provide a road map for women contemplating the procedure, along with Eggology Club, a weekly podcast to keep followers abreast of the latest developments and technologies. When she started her project, her respondents were mostly over 37.

"Now I'm hearing from parents who have teenagers and college-age daughters who are looking at this as a future gift," Landis said. "I have 25-year-olds call me because their parents are willing to foot the bill."

For better or worse, enthusiasm for the procedure reflects a sense of social entitlement.

"We live in an aspirational age," said Tanya Selvaratnam, who in her 2014 book, The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock, maintained that college-age women are only sketchily informed about their own reproductive cycles, an argument since borne out by several surveys.

According to a Yale University study published in July, career ambition is not the major factor that impels many women to delay childbearing. "A lack of a stable partner is the primary motivation," wrote Marcia Inhorn, a medical anthropologist who led the study. "Freezing eggs holds out hope for many."

Motivations remain as varied as the profiles of women who freeze. Some, like Swarm of Freeze.Health, who has heard her share of distress stories from older women with problems conceiving, views the procedure as a matter of course.

"I wear sunscreen to protect myself from future sun damage," she said lightly. "I work out to keep off my weight. Why would I not do something to prevent future emotional pain and suffering?"

For others, freezing and storing one's eggs can enhance a sense of material worth.

"These young women they are putting their eggs on ice as part of a list of things they are accomplishing," Landis said. "It's like getting a master's degree or buying a house, all in the name of making themselves more valuable."

Victoria Reitano, a 27-year-old former television producer turned branding entrepreneur, is more steely in her conviction.

"This is not just some whim, like I'm 17 years old and I want kids someday," she said. "My life plan at some point is to have at least two children. I've already made provisions for that."

That mindset, however, can be illusory. Undertaking the procedure in one's 20s can give a false sense of security.

Freezing, as some argue, may even be counterproductive.

"Assuming you have normal fertility and nothing unusual in your family history, there's definitely a point where it's too early, and we don't know what the shelf life of these eggs are," Dr Janis Fox, an assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Harvard University, recently told The New York Times.

New York Times