Women Who Freeze Their Eggs Still Face Social Stigma

PHOTO: Embriologist Terry Schlenker examines a research egg that had been frozen through a Vitrification Process at the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Eglewood, CO on Monday October 09, 2007.

Angela Yu wants to be a mother, just not right now.

However, the 35-year-old Southern California neuroscientist and researcher is aware of an undeniable fact.

"I was looking at the reproductive biology of women and how that declines with age, and I got worried," Yu said, adding her love life isn't where she'd like it to be right now in order to have children.

She froze her unfertilized eggs this June. Her boyfriend was supportive; her parents weren't, even though they've wanted grandchildren from their only child for several years. "They went from hostile to the idea, to skeptical, to gradually accepting the idea," she said.

Part of their initial hostility, Yu said, stemmed from their unfamiliarity with vitrification, now the most common method used to freeze eggs.

Vitrification flash freezes eggs so quickly ice crystals can't form and damage cell membranes. It's slightly more effective and technically easier to do than the older method of slow freezing, which wasn't immune to ice crystallization.

Although vitrification has been around for more than a decade, it started grabbing more headlines last October when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine announced it should no longer be considered experimental because it's safe and effective.

A study published in 2010 and conducted by the New York University Fertility Center compared live birth rates achieved through egg freezing (using both vitrification and slow freezing) versus recent data of live births using fresh in vitro fertilized eggs (IVF.) Egg freezing yielded 57 percent compared to 60.4 percent for IVF.

"The likelihood of success [with egg freezing] is at best the same as the IVF likelihood of success at any given age," said Dr. Eve Feinberg, of the Fertility Centers of Illinois.

The ASRM's announcement has made vitrification an important part of the conversation for women considering the procedure, but its advocates say they must still overcome one large obstacle: Social stigma.

"Most women wouldn't feel any concern in talking in public about fertility using birth control or other forms of contraception, like there's not really any social stigma associated with that anymore, but there is with egg freezing," Yu said.

The stigma is closely associated with the image of a woman, unmarried and in her late 30s or early 40s, who turns to egg freezing as a desperate last resort to preserve her chance at hopefully one day getting pregnant.

Experts and those who have undergone the process say education is key to reframing this view, but it's also a means to combat the fact that many women are waiting too long to think about fertility.

In some cases they're missing the opportunity to have children or use egg freezing as a family planning method. Nearly one in five women in the United States doesn't bear a child, according to a 2010 Pew Research study.

"I'm not seeing the 30 and 31-year-olds who want to come in and preserve their fertility. I'm seeing the 39, 40, 41-year-olds, and so I think the message that's really important to get out is you're going to have the best likelihood of success if you freeze your eggs earlier," Feinberg said.

"It's a function of the age at which the eggs were frozen," that's the most important factor, not the age of the pregnant woman, said Dr. James Grifo, program director at the NYUFC.

So what's the best age for a woman to freeze her eggs?

"Probably optimally before 33, doable, you know, up to 40. Over 40 you're not looking at a very high chance," Grifo said.

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