I just celebrated my 35th birthday, which according to my tenuous 20-something life plan was when I would be married and about to embark upon baby making. I won’t go into the various reasons why this hasn’t happened. It’s complicated, but in one sense it’s also perfectly simple – I’ve been progressing in life, ticking some boxes, leaving others expectantly empty because, as we are constantly told, we can’t expect to have it all. And yet, biology hasn’t yet caught up with the requirements of the modern woman lifestyle. As a result, the question of “to freeze or not to freeze” increasingly crops up in conversation with my female friends. Some are single, some are in happy relationships but for a variety of reasons (financial, social, professional) they are all considering delaying motherhood for either the first or second time.
Egg freezing, or oocyte cryopreservation to use it’s technical name, was originally conceived to help women facing infertility for medical reasons (such as undergoing chemotherapy which causes sterility), was brought into the mainstream in 2012, when the American Society for Reproductive Medicine stated that the procedure was no longer “experimental”. Although there was initially a degree of controversy over the notion of women freezing their eggs as an insurance policy for fear of not finding a partner or wanting to focus on careers, the social stigma surrounding the practice has largely dissipated. Now, it’s seen by many as a practical solution to the problem that while we are all taking longer to settle down and reproduce (the average age for a women to have her first child is 31), our biological clock is not fitted with snooze button.
So socially acceptable has it become to put your fertility on hold that in New York City, the latest trend is for egg freezing cocktail parties. Single ladies gather in glamorous locations, quaff cocktails and find out how the process works and the costs involved. The party atmosphere reportedly helps people relax, ask questions and open up about the circumstances that brought them to this point. These “Let’s Chill” parties (yes, it’s a terrible name) can only help combat the stereotype of the desperate Bridget Jones singleton waiting for Prince Charming to bring her 2.4 children and a house in the suburbs. Egg freezing helps women take the power back over their bodies and life choices – many describe it as an empowering process. Friends of mine who have done it say it helps keep their wannabe parent panic at bay, and stops them sizing up each new date as a potential baby daddy.
The parties, which have yet to launch in the UK, are hosted by an innovative start-up called Eggbanxx which aims to make egg freezing more financially accessible, as well as raise awareness. The cost of egg freezing can be prohibitive – most UK clinics charge between £3-5000, which is around the same price as a round of IVF. Eggbanx offers to cover the upfront costs of the procedure in exchange for a reasonable deposit from the patient, who then reportedly has to pay an average of $200 per month over a 48-month period, according to a piece in the Huffington Post.
Personally, I welcome the more open approach to egg freezing and think my generation do need a wake up call about our egg expiry dates – too often there is a tendency to look at celebrities such as Halle Berry who magically fall pregnant in their late 40s, and assume the same fate can befall us mere mortals. It’s possible, but late pregnancy also comes with all sorts of associated health risks. Leading fertility expert, Dr Gillian Lockwood of the Midland Fertility Clinic, recently told Newsweek: “I have a half-serious joke that in the future every doting father’s university graduation gift to his daughter will be a round of egg-freezing… I do believe egg freezing is a feminist issue. It was the same reaction when the Pill was introduced, we were told it would destroy family life as we know it. The fact is, there will always be some men out there who hate the idea of women having the same biological freedoms that they have.
While I agree on the whole with Lockwood, who I met last year when I interviewed her for a piece on this subject in the Sunday Times, the difficulty with egg freezing is that it does not address the deeper social issues driving women to delay motherhood, including the constant battle we face trying to juggle professional success with personal happiness. There is an argument that if we want to solve those issues, rather than investing in an icy insurance policy, we should be focusing our energies on closing the gender pay gap, campaigning for better childcare provision and addressing other social inequalities. Egg freezing might be an effective, and increasingly acceptable way of papering over the cracks, but that’s all it will ever be.
Image credit: Pedro Moura Pinheiro