More and more women are choosing to freeze their eggs to preserve their fertility for the future. This ‘social’ or ‘elective’ freezing gives women a chance to put their eggs on ice until they are in a position to start a family.
Sounds great, but there’s a drawback. Under UK law, eggs which are frozen for social reasons (rather than medical reasons) can only be stored for up to year years, at which point they must be allowed to perish. The ten-year rule means that if a woman is not in a position to have a child when the ten-year limit kicks, she’ll lose her eggs.
If eggs are frozen for medical reasons (for example, if someone is about to undergo chemotherapy and is going to become prematurely infertile), the period can be extended by another ten years, up to a maximum of 55 years in total.
The advice is clear - the best time to freeze eggs is when a woman is in her 20s or early 30s. To demonstrate the problem, let’s take for example a woman who freezes her eggs when she is 25.
At this point the clock starts ticking, and unless she wants to conceive with a sperm donor, she must find a partner and be ready to start a family with him by the time she is 35. Ten years pass but she’s not yet found a partner, and doesn’t want to start a family using a donor. She’s now 35, the age where fertility dramatically declines, but her clinic has no choice but to destroy her eggs. Those eggs could represent her best hope of conceiving, and she’s invested her time, money and emotional energy into preserving them. It’s a heartbreaking situation.
The ten-year limit was put in place originally because scientists didn’t know how eggs would cope if they were frozen for longer periods of time. However, methods for egg freezing have improved considerably since then, with most clinics using the flash-freezing vitrification process rather than the old method of slow cooling. This means the quality of frozen eggs is far better than it used to be, and they can be stored for much longer without deteriorating.
Retrieving a woman’s eggs is not a simple process. She has to take drugs to increase egg production, before going through the invasive, uncomfortable and for some, painful procedure of collection. It’s also expensive, costing around £5,000, with storage costs charged on top. It’s not something that anyone would undertake lightly or on a whim, and to think that it could all have been for nothing must be devastating.
Calling this treatment ‘elective’ or ‘social’ freezing implies that women are completely in control of their circumstances, and are choosing to delay motherhood because they are prioritising their social life instead of their biological clock.
We live in a different world now, and for many twenty-somethings, they are simply not in a position to start a family. As well as economic pressures, a woman may not have found the right partner in her twenties or early thirties. She may want to meet someone, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
Women don’t have complete control over their circumstances or when they will start a family, although this doesn’t stop well-meaning friends and family regularly telling women of childbearing age that they ‘mustn’t leave it too long’. Egg freezing is a woman’s way of taking a little control, in a world where so much is out of her control. Just because a woman freezes her eggs, a baby further down the line is not guaranteed. It’s not exactly hitting the pause button, but it’s as close to it as science will allow.
We have the technology to help women to preserve their fertility, and we should be helping them to have the family they have dreamed of. If new technologies allow eggs to be stored for longer without impacting on their quality, why impose an arbitrary ten-year limit? Most women are painfully aware of the relentless tick of their biological clock, and imposing such a tight timeframe on them puts them under yet more pressure. It’s time for this to change.