During the Covid-19 pandemic we have all spent less time in the company of others than perhaps ever before and for single women approaching the end of their fertility, the pandemic has come at a costly time when they would otherwise have hoped to be meeting a life partner and starting a family. Indeed, fertility clinics have seen a sharp rise in the number of women enquiring about egg freezing since the pandemic began. Egg freezing is a fertility extension technology and form of assisted reproduction which sees a woman undergoes hormonal stimulation to produce more eggs than she would in her normal monthly cycle, these eggs are then surgically retrieved and frozen at minus 196 degrees and stored at her clinic for potential future use. As mine, and others research has shown, women undergo egg freezing when faced with an illness or medical treatment that may render them infertile or may choose to freeze their eggs for so-called ‘social’ reasons such as due to their lack of a partner with whom to have a child.
When egg freezing was first legalised and regulated in the UK in 2000 there were many unknowns about who would use the technology, why, and about how long the eggs would remain viable. However, it is now widely accepted that once frozen, eggs remain in ‘suspended animation’ and do not age or decay. Since 2013 the number of egg freezing cycles performed by UK clinics has more than doubled as increasing numbers of women seek the opportunity to enable genetic motherhood later in life when their natural fertility may otherwise have declined. Currently women who freeze eggs for medical reasons, such as prior to chemotherapy for cancer, are able to store their eggs for up to 55 years. However, women who undergo the procedure for ‘social’ reasons, such as the lack of a suitable partner, have historically only able to freeze their eggs for 10 years at which point their eggs must be used or destroyed. Myself and others been campaigning for parity in storage times across both medical and social reasons and this week, following a public consultation, the Government announced that the 10 year storage limit will be replaced with a right for couples and individuals to access storage extensions for up to 55 years regardless of the reason for freezing. However, concerns have already been raised that this move may see greater numbers of women delaying motherhood until later on in life or see the emergence of much older mothers as women pursue motherhood for the first time in their 50s or even 60s.
Currently, the typical user of social egg freezing undergoes the procedure when she is on average 37 years of age, she is most often single, and in professional employment earning an above average income. The women I spoke to in my research recounted how their decision to undergo the procedure was most often shaped by the fear that they were running out of time to find a partner and form a conventional family as well as concerns of rushing in to a relationship with the wrong partner to avoid unwanted childlessness in the future. These women wanted to take the time to find the right partner, cultivate a secure relationship and environment in which to have a child prior to trying to conceive. At the time of freezing their eggs, many of the women I spoke to had wanted to have a child for many years, they didn’t really want to be freezing their eggs and in many cases would have preferred to actively be trying to conceive. Many women had been in relationships they had thought would lead to motherhood and had imagined that they would have already had a child by their current stage in life. As a result, these women often described how they felt they had not deliberately chosen to delay motherhood but had not become a mother for reasons outside of their control.
As such for these women, and those in research undertaken in America, Australia and Turkey, egg freezing wasn’t about putting off motherhood for as long as possible but about maintaining the possibility of shared genetic parenthood with a chosen partner as soon as was practically viable. Therefore, concerns that the lifting of the 10-year storage time limit on frozen eggs could lead to more women delaying childbearing is in my opinion unlikely. Egg freezing is expensive, invasive, painful and not without risk and not taken on lightly by its users. As a result, it is unlikely that large numbers of younger women in particular will pursue the procedure following a change in storage limits particularly as younger women are less likely to be able to bear the cost of the procedure but also because they have more time to find a partner and pursue motherhood naturally.
Instead, the rise in the storage time limit is most likely to help women who froze, or will freeze, their eggs in their mid to late 30s and who just need an extra few years to become ready to use their eggs to conceive. Indeed, my research and that of others indicate that women who freeze their eggs do not want to be pursuing motherhood for the first time in to their 50s and 60s but want the option to use their eggs in their early to mid-40s with a partner of their choosing. As such concerns that the extension in the time limit will lead to women using the technology to have children in their fifth and six decade of life is unfounded, particularly given the fact that UK clinics do not routinely treat women beyond the age of 50.
By Dr Kylie Baldwin
You can learn more about Dr Baldwin’s research on social egg freezing via her monograph on this topic which is free to download here.