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More Women Are Freezing Their Eggs, But Will They Ever Use Them?

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

If egg freezing once sounded like science fiction, those days are over. Women now hear about it from their friends, their doctors and informational events like Wine and Freeze.

Shady Grove Fertility Center in the Washington, D.C., area hosts Wine and Freeze nights for prospective patients every few months. Fifteen or so women in their 30s gathered at one recently over wine, brownies and sticky buns. A doctor explained the procedure, the costs and the odds of frozen eggs resulting in a baby — which decline as a woman ages.

Egg freezing for medical reasons — often women undergoing chemotherapy — has been possible for decades. Some 5,000 babies have been born from eggs that were frozen, thawed and fertilized.

In 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine decided egg freezing was no longer an experimental procedure. That opened the door for clinics like Shady Grove to market it to women who don't have a medical reason to do it but are simply worried about their declining fertility — what's being dubbed as "social" egg freezing.

The "social" egg freezing business these days is good, says Shady Grove medical director Dr. Eric Widra. "This is clearly a time where the technological ability to do this is converging with the demographics," he says. "There are more and more women who find themselves in a situation where they may potentially benefit from having their eggs frozen."

The majority of women currently freezing their eggs live in cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, according to Jake Anderson-Bialis, who's building a company called FertilityIQwith his wife, Deborah. "Marketing is aggressively happening, and these are the hubs where fertility clinics will prove out the concept," he says.

Anderson-Bialis says he's hoping to serve women freezing their eggs, as well as couples doing in vitro fertilization, with a database of fertility doctors and reviews from patients. FertilityIQ has so far gotten about 200 women who have frozen their eggs to write reviews of their experience.

The fact that wine is served at egg-freezing info sessions around the country might imply that this is no big deal, even fun. In fact, it's a complicated and physically demanding process.

Women inject themselves with hormones for up to two weeks to stimulate their ovaries to get as many mature eggs as possible. There's a surgical procedure to retrieve them. And there can be side effects along the way.

It also isn't cheap. One round averages about $12,000, and multiple rounds may be needed. No insurance companies cover egg freezing, but in October, a third tech company, Intel, joined Apple and Facebook in offering to pay the costs of egg freezing for employees. Financing may be available from a company called EggBanxx as well as some fertility clinics.

Stacey Samuel is a producer with CBS in Washington, D.C., (formerly with CNN). She thought about freezing her eggs earlier, but couldn't afford it until this year. "Before you know it, I'm 40, and I thought, oh, my goodness, this is very real for me," Samuel says.

Doctors prefer that women freeze their eggs before their mid-30s. But Samuel thought that advice might not apply to her. "I'm a black, South Asian female. Fertility in my culture and family extends for many years," she says. "So I'm thinking 40 is nothing but a number — I still get carded."

She assumed she'd get the 15 to 20 eggs that doctors recommend women freeze. But in the middle of her cycle, while she was injecting hormones, there were complications. She ended up with just 10.

"Even when I choose to go use those eggs, I could lose them again," Samuel says. "So that feeling of reassurance that I thought I was buying with my near $20,000 on the table — I'm still unable to control the outcome."

Preserved eggs offer women like Samuel hope for beating the biological clock. But you can't escape the fact that your body will continue to age. The older a woman is when she freezes her eggs and when she uses them with in vitro fertilization, the lower her chances of success.

"There was a lot of encouragement to go forth even if it looks like you're kind of a risky case, because I think these dedicated doctors really want to know where they can take this," Samuel says. "And they need the numbers, and they need those of us who are willing to go through with it."

That concerns John Robertson, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Texas Law School. He wrote a paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences on how women freezing their eggs can be both empowered and alienated by the procedure.

"The problem is it may be marketed to women who are in the older age group who may have very little chance of obtaining viable eggs," Robertson says. "So it's extremely important that there be full disclosure at every step of the process."

Dr. Kevin Doody agrees. He codirects the Center for Assisted Reproduction in Dallas, and is president-elect of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, or SART.

"I do not think that this should be highly promoted for the older-age woman," Doody says. "I'm not saying one should refuse or deny services if a 40- or 42-year-old woman wanted to have her eggs frozen. But I think it would warrant a substantial counseling session with that patient."

SART collects data on egg freezing in the U.S. And Doody says in 2013, about 4,000 women froze their eggs, up from about 2,500 the year before. And he predicts the number this year will be much higher.

But so far very few women who've frozen their eggs since the experimental label was lifted in 2012 have gone back to try to use them. SART found that of the 353 egg-thaw cycles in 2012, only 83 resulted in live births. In 2013, there were 414 thaw cycles and 99 live births. "Live birth" is not babies born — it means delivery of one or more infants, so it can include twins.

Overall, the success rate of live births from frozen eggs has remained consistently pretty low, at about 20 to 24 percent since 2009. And, Doody adds, "Even if the success rates were significantly higher, there's never going to be a guarantee for an individual patient that the eggs she would bank would ultimately result in a baby for her."

Medical anthropologist Marcia Inhorn at Yale University is conducting a study of the women who have frozen their eggs.

"The vast majority say, 'Well, it's given me peace of mind, I feel a sense of relief, it's taken the pressure off of me to rush into a relationship with someone who isn't right,' " she says.

Inhorn has interviewed about 100 women so far for her study.

"Most of these women are amazing professional women, I have to say," says Inhorn. "But the major reason over and over is not being able to find the right person to embark on a partnership and parenthood with."

Finding the right person is likely to be just as big a challenge for women in the future, Inhorn says. Which is why she believes this technology will become normalized, like in vitro fertilization.

And maybe it's already happening if people like Mindy Kaling are talking about it. The actress, producer and writer hit on this in an episode of her Hulu show The Mindy Project. Her character, a fertility doctor, goes to a college campus to peddle her newest service for women.

Here's what she tells them:

"When I was your age, I thought that I was going to be married by the time I was 25. But it took a lot longer than that. And unfortunately your body does not care if you are dating the wrong guy. ... Your body and your eggs just keep getting older, which is why freezing them is a pretty smart idea, 'cause it gives you a little bit more time."

But it will be years before there's enough data showing us whether egg freezing actually helps most of the women doing it fulfill their dreams of motherhood.

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