When Apple and Facebook announced a few weeks ago that they would begin paying for egg freezing as part of their employee health benefits, a lot of people were surprised. They made headlines across the globe, with many questioning how the USD$20 000 offer would affect women's thinking about child bearing and their careers.
Just five years ago, this wouldn't have been a possibility, and I don't think a lot of people would have supported it - including myself - as the technology was very limited.
When it was first developed in the 1980s, egg freezing technology was developed for female cancer patients who were looking to preserve their fertility before undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments that can cause sterility. Since this time, only 2000 babies have been born from frozen eggs worldwide, with just 20 born in the UK.
However, over the past few years, the technology has come on in leaps and bounds. I believe we are about to see more and more women successfully conceiving with the help of egg freezing.
Today, the technique used is a method known as vitrification, which cools the egg at a very fast rate so that the tissue is preserved in a glass-like state without the formation of damaging ice crystals. This process, also referred to as 'flash freezing,' has advanced far enough to provide nearly equal pregnancy rates to similar-aged in vitro fertilization (IVF) patients using fresh eggs. This has entirely transformed the way that we think about egg freezing.
Wherever I go, I overhear women chat about the possibilities of cryopreservation in coffee shops or in parks. Women also discuss the idea in blogs or via Twitter, and with their doctors. A lot of my patients come to me wanting to know the truth about egg freezing. Is it safe? Do I need to do this? Will I be able to get pregnant?
While the technological developments have shifted cultural thinking and opened up some fantastic opportunities for females, I believe it is so important to remind my patients that this does not change their physiology. Women cannot simply pause their biological clock and press play when they are ready to conceive, disregarding all the emotional, physical, financial, and ethical factors at play.
Let's start by looking at the financial issues - egg freezing costs around £5000 for a single cycle and then £200 per year for egg preservation, which is a hefty fee for those who do not work at Apple or Facebook.
Beyond the costs, a woman has a variety of other factors to think about, such as age-specific success rates; will I be physically capable of carrying a child when I'm older? Or, when I do decide to conceive, will I be able to care for a child for the following 18 years?
I think it is so important to remember the limitations of the body, and not to let technology override what is natural. For example, if a 24 year old woman came to me for assistance with egg freezing as she was undergoing chemotherapy, I would of course do anything in my power to assist her.
However, if a 55 year old woman came to me - a pregnancy would possibly be a great risk to herself and to the baby, and I believe it wouldn't be ethical to support this. I believe egg freezing can be an excellent way to overcome obstacles, so long as we do this within nature's limits.
Fertility is not a topic that should be left until it is too late, I cannot stress how important it is for women to take care of themselves throughout their 20s, 30s, and 40s in order to maximise their chances of having a healthy baby.
I like to tell my patients that egg freezing is like an insurance plan, a great back-up to have, but not one that we should rely on or hope to use. This back-up can be a fantastic option for women who are feeling pressured or rushed to fall pregnant at a time that isn't right for them. It is an option that can drastically reduce stress-levels , which is an important factor in maximising your natural fertility.
I believe we need to look at egg freezing as one possible avenue to conception, and at the same time consider all the other options that are available in order to increase your chances of success. My experience has taught me that the best way forward should include a combination of approaches tailored to the individual, which means factoring in your nutrition, exercise plan, lifestyle, and perhaps a range of complementary treatments such as hypnotherapy or acupuncture.
I often say that the path to pregnancy can be likened to building a house - you need to invite the builder, the surveyor, and the electrician along for the journey, as one cannot build a house alone. So before you call on your insurance plan, work together with your partner, your doctor, your yoga instructor, your nutritionist, your colleagues and all the other important people in your life to explore every avenue when trying to fall pregnant.
I am not a betting man, but I like to win. When I go to the races I bet on every single horse, so that I can maximise the chances of success. Egg freezing might be one of those horses, but it's up to the individual to find what works for them and a good doctor will encourage you to look at all the possibilities.
Mr Michael Dooley runs the Poundbury Fertility Clinic in King Edward VII's Hospital in London. This clinic provides a bespoke and integrated service for fertility patients.
For more information visit www.kingedwardvii.co.uk.