Apr. 9, 2008 -- We don't need "Baby Mama" -- the new movie starring Tina Fey as a successful, single, infertile mommy wannabe -- to tell us increasing numbers of women are using unusual methods to secure career and family with or without men.
In case you haven't seen the trailer yet, a doctor tells the film's heroine that while her eggs are healthy, her uterus is not up to the task. Cue in the ridiculously juvenile blond surrogate.
Yet for most women in Fey's character's position, the opposite is true. Barring fibroids and other abnormalities, the average uterus can stay viable indefinitely. Eggs, on the other hand, have a definite expiration date. On the extreme end, some researchers say they start losing their verve before a woman turns 30.
The "career girl's" baby dilemma -- so cliche, so true. You attend school with men, embark on careers, go out for drinks and imagine that your futures will share similar trajectories.
It's easy to think that way when you're strong and shiny and blissfully unaware that by the time you're 35 (the new 25, right?) your fertility is sliding like a novice down a sheer rock face.
Cue in the egg freezers. Sperm has been banked in the United States since the '60s, but until recently the storage of a woman's unfertilized eggs has been next to impossible. That's because eggs, with their high water content, have a tendency to produce destructive ice crystals.
That was before Eleanora Porcu.Three years ago the Italian endocrinologist figured out a slow-freeze method involving a patented cyroprotectant (protective freezer juice, in lay terms) which, boosters report, has dramatically expanded women's options.
Now, in theory, a 32-year-old woman on the partner track with no acceptable sperm in sight and no time to date can bank her eggs for later. When she's 40, with cash in the bank and maybe even an adoring partner, she can have her eggs defrosted and fertilized.
Ronald Dworkin, a bioethicist who last year wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal comparing advances in egg freezing to the advent of the birth control pill, says the hypothetical 32-year-old has a better chance of getting pregnant with her young, previously frozen eggs than she does with her fresh but battered 40-year-old eggs. He's but one of a growing number of true believers.
Even better, from some perspectives, is the prospect of a 21-year-old go-getter harvesting her eggs while they're at their rosiest and making a deposit -- thereby exempting herself from the tired old career girl's dilemma.
"That's my fantasy," said Marla Libraty of Extend Fertility, the market leader in egg freezing. "I wish every woman would bank her own eggs."
Libraty, however, not wishing to fuel a stereotype distasteful to some, takes pains to add that not all of Extend Fertility's clients use its services because they wish to delay childbirth for professional reasons. Many do so out of medical necessity.
Still, in one version of utopia, young women not unlike the fresh-faced models featured on Laterbaby.org -- a Web site sponsored by Extend -- will be as free as their male counterparts to pursue grad school and high-powered careers untethered to a cantankerous old biological clock.
Not that there aren't a few kinks to work out. The technology is new and has resulted in what boosters estimate at 500 live births worldwide. Extend, which has licensed the Italian proprietary technology for the United States, has about 200 batches (that's about 3,000 eggs) on ice in six fertility clinics nationwide.
At a rate starting around $16,000, plus about $450 a year for storage, it's no surprise that the numbers don't qualify egg freezing as a trend quite yet.
Most experts put the success rate between 10 percent and 16 percent, and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine is less than gung-ho.
Said spokesperson Sean Tipton: "The peer-reviewed data to date continues to show that there is not a high success rate."
Despite its reservations, the center reported that there does not seem to be any increase in birth defects or other abnormalities in the children born from frozen eggs.
Dworkin thinks it will take about five years for researchers to produce the large-scale proof necessary to convince the skeptics. "Inevitably, this will work itself out. Right now it's about 10-1 against, and some clinics may be overstating the success rate. But I believe science will master any problems."
Fifteen years ago people had similar reservations about what we used to call test-tube babies, Dworkin says. But today in-vitro fertilization and the process of freezing embryos are a widely acceptable options for infertile couples, military couples and women with cancer.
It's also another option for women who want to delay pregnancy for personal reasons -- the difference is you have to arrive at the clinic with a man in tow, or at least the "essence" of one.
Libraty, whose company does not provide embryo-freezing services, thinks the developments in egg freezing are liberating to women. "If you freeze embryos you are married to the sperm," she said.
What happens if you separate from your true love after paying all that money? What if you still want the embryos and he does not? Trouble, usually.
If it goes to court most likely the embryos will be destroyed, because, says Libraty, "you can't force someone to be a parent. Embryos are community property."
Lucia Vazquez, 33, had her eggs frozen just before her birthday not quite a year ago. A single Manhattan woman with a sales job she describes as demanding, Vazquez says that even if she were in a serious relationship, she wouldn't want to have children for at least five years.
"I'm just waiting until the time is right. There's other things I want to do for now." She also knows there's no guarantee and says she's fine with that.
"I figure if you're going to delay motherhood anyway, why not save your eggs?"