One cycle means paying up to 8,000 and the birth rate is just 18%. Despite this, women are increasingly choosing this route
Growing numbers of women are choosing to freeze their eggs because they havent found the right partner yet but with the odds of conception so low, is it a waste of money?
Egg freezing is a method of preserving a womans fertility so she can try to have children at a later date. It involves collecting her eggs, freezing them and thawing them later so they can be used in treatment. .
Caroline Watson* was in her late 30s and had been single for three years when she started to seriously consider freezing her eggs. The clock was ticking and I wanted to buy myself some time as I didnt expect to meet anyone soon to have a child with, says Watson, a lawyer who lives in London. Aged 39, she froze her eggs, a process that involves a course of injections to stimulate the ovaries to produce eggs that can be extracted and placed in cryogenic storage. She put the 5,000 cost on her credit card.
Five years later and still single, Watson took out a 25,000 personal loan to pay for IVF with a sperm donor in the US, which involved investing in a further egg cycle and embryos transfer. Sadly, it didnt result in a successful pregnancy. Now, a year later, Watson is still pinning her hopes and investing substantial amounts of money on becoming a mother. Im 45 and considering using an egg donor with my last sperm ampoule.
But for now, given the emotional strain, shes pressing pause. I need a break as its very stressful, she says.
Watsons pursuit of motherhood is far from uncommon. An increasing number of single women are choosing to freeze their eggs and, rather than the reason being that they have focused on their career rather than relationships, as some parts of the media have portrayed it, many are doing so because they have not met the person they would like to have children with.
In 2016, 46% of women who froze their eggs did so without a partner, according to the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UKs independent regulator for fertility treatment and human embryo research. Meanwhile, more than three-quarters (77%) of women who froze their eggs with The London Womens Clinic between 2012 and 2016 were single.
The request for egg freezing for what we call elective or social reasons has taken off, says Nick Macklon, medical director at the London Womens Clinic and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Copenhagen. We have seen a demand for egg freezing among single women with a focus on big cities, so it seems to be commonly linked to [living in] an urban competitive environment.
Theres also a big change not just in attitude and feelings of we dont need a partner to design our own future, but also with technology, which means theres a chance of having a child in a way that we couldnt a long time ago.
But as Watsons credit card and loan show, the process is costly. The average price of one complete egg-freezing cycle, including storage and use of eggs in future treatments, is 7,000 to 8,000, according to the HFEA (egg freezing is only funded by the NHS in cases where, for example, the individual is undergoing treatment for cancer).
However, despite the hefty charges, research from Imperial College London and Chelsea and Westminster hospital shows that the chances of conceiving with the frozen eggs is relatively small. Their statistics show that the proportion of frozen eggs that leads to a live birth among women under 36 is 8.2% falling to 3.3% for women aged 36 to 39. According to the HFEA, the current birth rate for women trying to conceive from their own frozen eggs is 18%.
The ideal time to freeze eggs would be about 30-31 not just for medical reasons, but also social reasons, says Macklon, pointing out that egg storage only lasts for 10 years unless there is a medical issue.
Despite the high costs and low success rates, many women such as Watson are prepared to get into debt to preserve their fertility.
When Sarah Thompsons* relationship suddenly ended at 40, she started to panic that she may never have children. Being a mother was something I felt innately built for, says Thompson, now 44 and living in Devon. However, this was not something I wanted to do on my own or to drive into a relationship for solely that gain. I hoped there was time for this to be done the traditional way: being with someone you love.
But with evidence indicating that egg quality decreases with age, two years later she decided to freeze her eggs. This was such a big decision for me not so much on an emotional level, but more on a financial one, Thompson says. I had a good job but didnt earn enough to rent, save for a deposit [for a property] and freeze my eggs. I had no parental or partner financial support, so I had to do it on my own.
A month later, she put the 7,000 cost of freezing her eggs on two credit cards. Im not really a credit card user, but I thought my eggs cant wait, says Thompson, who produced seven eggs, which are now in storage. My chances were really low. They were straight with me. They told me I have a one in 10 chance [of falling pregnant with those eggs].
But despite this, she says she has no regrets, adding that she has since met someone with whom she might try to have a baby in the near future.
It was a year after a long-term relationship had ended when Alice Mann*, then 36, decided to freeze her eggs. As well as mourning the loss of the relationship, I also felt I was losing my last chance to be a mother, says the author of the Egged On blog. Freezing my eggs seemed like a way of pressing pause or keeping my options open.
She says she researched fertility clinics and was sceptical of those that charged hundreds for an open morning or tried to sell me three-for-two packages. She eventually plumped for one with a free open morning and 10-minute consultation with the medical director. Over the past five years, the marketing consultant has spent around 50,000 on three cycles of egg freezing, trying to conceive using her frozen eggs and a further three rounds of IVF, all of which have been unsuccessful.
Fortunately for Mann, who lives in London, it hasnt been a strain financially. Im boring and sensible, and I have a good job that pays a decent wage, so Id been able to save money over the preceding years, says Mann, now 41.
In other years that might have gone towards redoing my bathroom or my kitchen, and I guess long term I was saving up to buy a property overseas. But over the last few years those savings have gone towards egg freezing, IVF and associated costs.
Im very lucky I know its not an inconsiderable amount of money, but I dont feel Ive had to deprive myself of anything to pay for it.
However, while one door has possibly closed, another has opened. She is now in a relationship with a man she met a year ago. Hes wonderful and open to having children, so who knows what will happen next?
Some other women I speak to say they are saving up to preserve their fertility. Gemma Ellis*, a product manager who lives in London, is on the cusp of freezing her eggs. Im 35 and in my head that is the cut-off point to freeze my eggs at 37 it wont be money as well spent.
She says that over the past few years she has put away between 300 and 500 a month into a separate account. I have saved up 10,000, which I was able to do without noticing too much as I had got a new job with a higher salary.
Anyone opting for egg freezing is advised to ask the clinic they are considering for a breakdown of all the costs before they go ahead with the procedure.
Thompson says she was left frustrated after the clinic she used wasnt clear about the price. They said it would cost a certain amount … they didnt say that every consultation would be 250 each time. That particular clinic could have been clearer with the breakdown of the costs.
Similarly, Watson warns that the costs can spiral given the lack of transparency about it.
Clinics dont give a good idea of cost as it depends on your drugs and procedures, and your reaction, she says. Its a bit like building work you need to allow for additional costs and spend all you can for success.
* Names have been changed
What the experts say
Dr Jane Stewart, chair of the British Fertility Society, advises women to undertake thorough research before forking out substantial sums.
Theres no guarantee of success and natural fertility still carries a high cumulative pregnancy rate for women who are otherwise fertile, she says. Dont be scared by the fertility statistics many women conceive in their late 30s and 40s if they dont have a separate fertility problem, but it can take longer and for some may not happen. Understanding that helps to make other decisions.
Egg storage, she says, is an option in the right circumstances, but is not a guarantee and, indeed, may not be needed. Plus, its a big investment.
Aileen Feeney, chief executive of the charity Fertility Network, says that as the optimum time, biologically speaking, for a woman to freeze her eggs is before fertility begins to fall at the age of 28, it would like to see the storage limit for egg freezing for non-medical reasons extended beyond the arbitrary 10-year limit.
She adds: This would give women greater flexibility on when to use their frozen eggs. But egg freezing should not be considered a fertility insurance policy, as this does not guarantee success. For example, the fertility of future partners have to be taken into consideration, the eggs may not survive and frozen-egg birth rates are low. Clinics must be transparent on these factors when their patient is considering freezing their eggs, so they are able to make an informed choice as to whether egg freezing is the right decision for them.