Pressing pause on parenthood – the importance of understanding the facts about egg and embryo freezing

24 August 2018

Egg freezing has hit the news headlines this month as doctors writing in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology raise concerns that women who undertake the process are being misled by clinics and not properly warned about potential low success rates.

Egg freezing has been promoted to women as a way of putting their fertility concerns “on ice” and as a legitimate way to delay motherhood. The age of mothers at the birth of their first child has been steadily rising since the late 1970s and a whole host of environmental and social factors have contributed to that trend. Many more women have careers they wish to establish and develop before taking time out to have children, however, research has shown that a more pressing issue faced by women is the pressure and difficulty of finding the right person to settle down and have a family with.

Women are reminded constantly that their fertility has a “shelf-life” and that it will be in decline from their early 30s. It is little wonder that when an alternative option is offered to effectively stall the process of decline, seemingly acting as “anti-ageing” for eggs, that women have signed up to this. The process has largely been marketed as an opportunity to compartmentalise reproduction and starting a family and reschedule parenthood for a time that feels right. There are reports that companies in the US (e.g. Apple and Facebook) are offering egg freezing as part of their health cover for female employees, purportedly enabling them to work for longer and put off having children to a later date.

Fertility specialists emphasise that the problem with egg freezing is threefold:

  • First, many women are leaving it much too late to freeze their eggs and relying on it as a “last ditch effort” resulting in potentially lower quality eggs being extracted for freezing;
  • Secondly, the data we have in the UK about the success rates of egg freezing comes from larger and more established clinics and those success rates cannot simply be transferred and applied to smaller clinics, which women may approach if they offer services more cheaply and may not have the same track-record or experience of other clinics; and
  • Finally, “social egg freezing” has the knock-on effect of encouraging women to delay parenthood and therefore increasing the risk of complications and difficulties during the pregnancy itself.

The reported statistics and success rates are fairly disappointing reading, offering an 8.2% chance of a healthy birth for women who freeze their eggs aged 35 or under and a lesser 3.3% for those aged 36 – 39 years old. This is in stark contrast to the higher success rates for live births arising from frozen embryos (where an egg is fertilised with sperm before freezing). The experts counsel that women should be advised of these success rates before investing in egg freezing, which on average, is likely to cost around £15,000 plus annual storage costs of £200 - £400.

The HFEA advise that the standard period of time for which frozen eggs can be retained is 10 years, however, in certain limited circumstances they can be held for as long as up to 55 years. We know that the quality of a woman’s eggs declines over time and so women are advised to freeze their eggs when they are in their reproductive prime, however, given the standard storage period of ten years women could be stuck with the dilemma of undertaking egg freezing at a time when their egg quality is at its peak and then looking into the future (a maximum of ten years) trying to determine whether they will be ready for a child within that time period. The unhappy consequence of this being that if a woman who does not use her frozen eggs within the ten year period (and there is no ability to extend that period), she will have only her existing eggs to rely upon which will naturally be of lesser quality due to the passage of time.

Having a family and becoming a parent is, for obvious reasons, an extremely emotive topic and it is hardly surprising that the heart will overrule the head when offered the chance to undertake a process which might one day produce a much longed for child. It is hoped, however, that with more up-front information about success rates from clinics and advice about all the options available, women will be able to make a considered decision based on proven statistics and their own circumstances and reduce the risk of disappointment in years to come.

One of these alternatives may be surrogacy. We help a number of intended parents who were not given all of the options when considering their own fertility and who have since decided to have a family using a surrogate.  The law surrounding surrogacy arrangements is complicated and parents should undertake research and take advice about this as a route to parenthood before embarking on such an important journey. 

Egg freezing and embryo freezing raises a number of other issues in a relationship and family law context. We will explore these issues in subsequent blogs on topics such as ownership of embryos and the legal position of eggs, sperm and embryos in the event of death.

Further information

Should you have any questions relating to fertility related issues, please contact a member of our family team.

You may also be interested in reading more about international surrogacy and the position in the UK HERE. Further information can also be found on our Frequently Asked Questions page about surrogacy and our previous blogs.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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