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Cold comfort

Fertility clinics promise to beat the biological clock –– but egg freezing rarely works

Last week came some stern words for millennial women: egg-freezing may not be all it’s (excuse the pun) cracked up to be. That was the advice of Professor Imogen Goold, who warned at the annual conference of the fertility charity Progress Educational Trust, that clinics may be “preying on women being anxious about having children by getting them to throw money at the problem. The chances of using eggs to have a baby, said the professor, were as low as three per cent for eggs frozen when women were aged 36 to 39.


That this is “news” at all should tell us about the extent to which egg freezing has been overhyped in our society, with the number of women undertaking the procedure rising from 148 to 2010 to a record high of 1,589 in 2019. Celebrities and influencers are no doubt greatly behind the increasing trend, fuelling the idea that egg freezing is how the modern woman takes control of her destiny. Speaking of freezing her own eggs, singer Rita Ora said her doctor told her “why not put them away and then you never have to worry about it again?” perfectly encapsulating how many now consider this treatment. A Plan B for the busy-but-broody woman.

The big catch is giving half of your own eggs away

The truth is that egg-freezing is more like Plan G: an incredibly expensive (the initial cost is approximately £8,000) and sometimes emotionally gruelling treatment (the same process as IVF), which does not always result in children. In its report from 2016, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority reported an 18 per cent birth rate from 178 women using their own thawed eggs — hardly the sort of figure you’d imagine from the spin around egg freezing. Unfortunately, unlike when someone criticises vaccines, there is no cry of “misinformation” when celebrities, doctors and otherwise exaggerate the efficacy of the treatment.

As Goold warned, clinics are prone to push egg freezing. I know this personally (I am 33), as on Facebook I have been invited to an “Egg Freezing Party and more recently to take part in a “Freeze and Share” programme by the London Egg Bank. The latter “allows you to freeze your eggs for free and give another family a chance to have the baby they are longing for”. 

The big catch is that you have to give half of your own eggs away. It could logically mean that only the batch a woman donated materialises into children, whereas when she wants to use the eggs herself, it does not work (not least because she may have less money than someone paying for a donation to get the treatment required). Furthermore, women drawn into this scheme may end up being contacted by the donor kid/s they have created (to get the freebie) in the future, due to changes in anonymity laws for egg and sperm donation.

Clinics are exploiting the economic hardship of women

Clinics should, of course, go over these details, but Goold is right to warn about women’s anxiety. They may be prone to “panic buying” in the current economic climate — especially with a “freebie” offer.

Worse of all, it is not obvious how much money clinics are making from the growing anxiety. The UK is not like the US, in that we do not allow women to profit from surrogacy. Egg donors can’t technically sell their eggs, and sperm donors are paid £35 per visit for expenses, so you might get the impression that we are more “ethical” than on the other side of the pond. However, those buying eggs from donors can spend tens of thousands obtaining “packages”, including, for instance, six eggs to try. Whilst eggs are technically unpaid for, they are part of an incredibly expensive product, from which clinics profit overall.

We have a situation in which clinics are exploiting the economic hardship of women to enhance their business. Meanwhile the Government is let off the hook from finding real solutions to the declining birth rate, thanks in part to the exaggerated claims made for egg freezing. Sadly, women — feeling empowered by an overhyped new technology — become unwittingly complicit in this worsening situation.

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