Egg Freezing May Offer Fertility Freedom

It may sound as far-fetched as cryogenics (search), the deep-freeze technique whereby baseball great Ted Williams' body was submerged in liquid nitrogen in a post-mortem attempt at cheating death.

But the technology of egg freezing (search), which allows young women to harvest and preserve their fresh, healthy eggs for later-in-life pregnancies, is not so much science fiction as it is the latest fertility frontier in cheating Mother Nature.

At least one ambitious entrepreneur is betting that the technology will lead to a reproductive revolution.

"Unfortunately, biology says we should have children in our 20s, but the reality is, women are pursuing graduate education, wanting to get established in life," says Christy Jones, the 34-year-old CEO of Extend Fertility, a network of five fertility centers across the country that offers elective egg freezing to women wishing to preserve their fertility while they pursue other priorities.

The science of egg freezing has been around for about 10 years, and along with many current fertility treatments, including ovarian tissue freezing (search), was originally designed for women undergoing harmful radiation or chemotherapy (search) treatment for cancer.

It was Jones who hatched the idea of a commercial market of egg freezing for perfectly healthy women, and the dramatic social and cultural shifts that have been gestating over the past three decades may have created a fertile ground for her embryonic empire.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of first-time mothers over the age of 35 is at its highest level ever. While the birth rate for women aged 30 to 34 increased by 4 percent in 2003, it rose 5 percent for those giving birth between ages 40 to 44.

Advances in fertility treatments can be credited with much of that increase, but experts warn that highly publicized cases of pregnancies late in life have created a false sense of security for women. Often, those older mothers have conceived using donor eggs from a younger woman.

According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (search), a woman over age 40 has no more than a 5 percent of naturally becoming pregnant in any given month. Furthermore, the risk of chromosomal abnormalities (search) in newborns increases with maternal age, growing from one in 385 at age 30 to one in 66 at age 40.

"I never really thought about not being able to have a child until I started working in a fertility clinic and watched a revolving door of women having trouble conceiving as young as 27," said Extend Fertility client Grace Drake, a 35-year-old fertility specialist in an Austin clinic who plans to pursue an MBA before having children.

"[Egg freezing] gives you options, empowers you. It allows you to pursue dreams that you might not have otherwise," Drake added. "I want this science to be as smooth as sperm freezing. It's detrimental to our society if women choose higher education over having families."

"In 20 years, when we're in our 50s," she concluded, "this is going to be a common-day practice. We didn't know what the results of freezing sperm or eggs would be when we started. We have to start somewhere."

But women like Drake raise a thorny question: Is there a point where it's too late to be a mother?

Some critics say yes.

"Children deserve to have a mother who still has a certain amount of energy, a woman who can see the child up close without having to wear glasses," says Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League (search).

"When you get to be 50, it's time to be a grandmother, not a mother. We're not going to live forever, and it would be nice to see your children grow into their adolescence," she added. "Men, of course, can father a child at any age, and for whatever reason, nature allows that to happen. But nature doesn't allow that for women, and there must be a good reason for that."

There are other ethical and moral issues as well. When a woman is ready to use her frozen eggs, she undergoes gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) (search), a procedure similar to in vitro fertilization (search).

Many pro-life advocates oppose such procedures in general.

"We would be opposed to [egg freezing] because it interrupts the normal fertilization process in the sex act we would reserve for married couples," says Scheidler.

However, the procedures have one significant difference. In IVF, fertilization occurs outside the body in a Petri dish, where the sperm and eggs are left to mingle for 14 to 18 hours. In GIFT, the eggs and sperm are mixed in a test tube, then immediately inserted into one of the patient's fallopian tubes, where fertilization then occurs more or less naturally.

The difference may seem minor, but could be crucial in offsetting some of these objections.

“Egg freezing shouldn’t be an issue for the Catholic Church,” said Dr. Kaylen Silverberg, medical director of a Texas fertility clinic working with Extend and another organization, Fertile Hope (search), which works with female cancer patients hoping to preserve their fertility.

“The Vatican hospital does egg extracting and the Catholic Church approves of the fertilization procedure," Silverberg explains, "as long as the eggs are immediately implanted in the woman and fertilization happens inside her body.”

He added that while no interest group has yet spoken out against egg freezing, with time and publicity, a full-blown debate could erupt.

Drake, who says she is a practicing Christian, said she sees no moral dilemma.

"I don't see being rejected from heaven for freezing eggs," she said.

Ethical issues side, some experts caution that Jones may need to get a better feel for her target market.

Harvesting a woman's eggs is an invasive surgical procedure that requires weeks of hormone injections to stimulate ovulation (search).

Freezing the eggs is another complicated process. The largest type of cell in a woman's body, an egg mostly contains water, which crystallizes when frozen. To freeze the egg, it must first be dehydrated with cryoprotectants (search), and then rehydrated when defrosted.

The process can toughen the outer membrane of the egg, making it more resistant to fertilization. The membrane is also at greater risk of rupturing during defrosting.

Unlike sperm freezing, in which millions of sperm are harvested, only about 12 eggs can be harvested during one cycle.

Eggs then have a low survival rate, just 20 to 40 percent, leading ultimately to low odds of fertilization.

"From the data published, it looks like we ought to be able to get pregnancies in the 20 percent range," said Dr. Silverberg. "It will never be as commonplace as sperm donation. Sperm donation is very simple, but with egg donation, you have to go through several weeks of injections."

It is also exorbitantly expensive, ranging from $12,000 to $14,000 per session. The only aspect of egg freezing in which costs could be reduced is with the fertility drugs themselves, but their price isn't going down any time soon, Dr. Silverberg said.

The single course of fertility drugs required to stimulate egg production can account for almost half of the overall cost of egg freezing.

Jones hopes to break down these obstacles. She said she founded her company not just as a way to provide a service to women, but to create a consumer demand that will ensure the research and technology keep moving forward.

"I don't think the science of egg freezing would be advancing so fast if there wasn't a woman putting a consumer advocacy focus" on extending the fertility of single women, Jones said.

However, it may be those very women — young and single — who prove to be her toughest customers.

Most of Extend Fertility's customers are, like Drake, already in their 30s and 40s, and more than ready to hedge their biological bets. But the idea behind the venture is that women in their 20s will choose to preserve their eggs at their healthiest and most fertile stage.

It could be very difficult to convince young women to undergo an invasive and expensive procedure to prepare for future fertility issues that they hope never to have.

"I'm not ready to give up hope on the 'traditional' way yet," said Laurie Adler, a single 27-year-old who works in public relations in New York. "But if in the future, I was still not ready to have a baby, but my doctor told me that my eggs might not still be ready when I finally was, then I would definitely consider it."

"It's worth the investment to have at least a chance at having a child that's truly a part of you, at the right time in your life," she added.

Jones acknowledges that, right now, there is still a significant stigma associated with egg freezing.

Drake was the only Extend client willing to go public with her story, and she said she did so because she herself is a fertility specialist who wants to get the word out.

Jones believes egg freezing is the key to emancipating women from their biological clocks, a freedom she says today's young women will eventually embrace.

She says she can imagine a time when women will take out loans to safeguard their fertility, much as they do to cover the cost of their education.

Silverberg cautions that the concept of prolonging female fertility may be a good one, but "the method might not be the right one."