This is a huge question that can weigh on the minds of women who are at a point in their life when they are not ready or able to have a baby, but don’t want to lose the possibility of it happening in the future. Social egg freezing – that is, having eggs removed from your ovaries and stored for future use because of personal (not medical) reasons – is a relatively new development in the world of fertility treatment. Until a few years ago, women didn’t have a way to ‘press pause’ on their biological clock, but now they can.
Of course, nothing is that simple. Here I’ll outline the factors to consider when it comes to deciding whether egg freezing is right for you.
But first, what exactly is egg freezing?
A woman’s eggs are what she needs to have a baby. When you are born, you have a reserve of millions of eggs in your ovaries, but this number steadily declines throughout your life until it runs out. Every month during your menstrual cycle, several immature eggs start to develop, but only one reaches maturity and is released from the ovaries (the others die). After ovulation, the mature egg is ready to be fertilised by sperm.
Egg freezing is a way to collect a number of mature eggs and preserve them for fertilisation at a later stage, outside of the body, by in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The steps for egg freezing are the first two steps in the IVF treatment cycle, which I have outlined here. To explain it briefly, you self-administer hormone injections over a few weeks to make your body produce multiple mature eggs ready for ovulation and then undergo a quick surgical procedure to collect these eggs from your ovaries. The eggs are then frozen by a method known as vitrification, which keeps them viable for use in years to come.
You’re not using up your future egg supply by going through this process – egg stimulation simply makes use all of the eggs from a cycle. It won’t lead to premature menopause.
Timing is everything
One of the most common questions I am asked is ‘when is the best time to freeze my eggs?’. Personal circumstances make this slightly different for everyone, but there are some general rules to go by. Younger eggs are better quality, and when you are young more eggs are available for collection. Because the number and quality of eggs rapidly declines after the age of 35, I generally recommend freezing your eggs before then and definitely not after the age of 38. In Victoria, you can legally store your eggs for 10 years (after which you can apply for an extension) so consider whether you’ll actually want to use them in that timeframe. And if you are younger, there’s still a chance you will conceive naturally when the time comes, in which case undergoing this procedure may not be necessary.
Pregnancy is not guaranteed
While freezing your eggs is a reliable procedure that can help put your mind at ease, I always stress to my patients that it does not guarantee a successful pregnancy in the future.
Once your eggs are ready to be used, there are a number of steps involved before a pregnancy is achieved (steps 3–7 of the IVF process outlined here). Unfortunately, at each step there is a chance that the process will not work. Some eggs may not be viable after they are thawed, some may not fertilise, some fertilised eggs may not survive, and those that are fertilised may not successfully implant into the womb. That’s not to say that women don’t have success with the egg freezing process, but it’s important to be aware of these facts when considering freezing your eggs.
As I mentioned earlier, the quality of your eggs is related to your age when they were frozen. Older women have fewer eggs retrieved and reduced quality eggs, so they generally have less success with egg freezing and subsequent pregnancy. On average, a woman who had her eggs retrieved at 30 may need around 10 eggs to have a baby, whereas a woman who was 40 when she had the procedure may need up to 20 eggs (though it may be harder to actually retrieve that many eggs in an older woman).
Some media reports claim egg freezing has a very low success rate, but it’s important to remember that the newer freezing process (vitrification) is expected to yield better survival rates of thawed eggs than the older method. There isn’t a lot of data available for these eggs, as the majority are yet to be used.
It’s an investment in your future
For social egg freezing (i.e. not for a medical condition), there is no Medicare rebate. However, if you get a referral letter to see fertility specialist, you may get a rebate for your consultation and tests. Costs incurred for the whole egg freezing process include the treatment cycle, medications, day surgery and anaesthetist fees, initial freezing and then an ongoing yearly fee for egg storage. On average, you can expect to spend around $10,000 for the whole process.
Some medical conditions attract a Medicare rebate for egg freezing
When egg freezing is recommended due to a medical condition affecting your fertility, your treatment may attract Medicare benefits. This assessment can only be made after thorough consultation with a fertility specialist. Medical egg freezing may be necessary for conditions such as:
- Breast cancer and other cancers
- Severe endometriosis
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Choose a reputable specialist and clinic
Because of the financial and emotional investment in egg freezing, you want to know you’re in the best hands possible. Choose an experienced fertility specialist who practises at a reputable fertility clinic with the latest technology (e.g. vitrification) to increase your chances of a successful pregnancy down the track. I perform the egg freezing process at Monash IVF, one of Australia’s leading fertility treatment centres with high success rates.
Egg freezing isn’t your only option for having a baby
Freezing your eggs is one way that you can increase your chances of having a baby in the future. But it’s not the only option. Other fertility treatments may be better suited to your situation. I offer a range of treatment options so you can find the solution that works for you.
You can also consider:
- Freezing embryos – If you have a partner but you’re not quite ready to have a baby for career or other reasons, it may be better to freeze embryos rather than eggs. This is because not all frozen eggs are viable. If they make it to the embryo stage before being frozen, that’s one step closer to a successful pregnancy.
- Donor sperm – If not having a partner is holding you back from having a baby, but you’re ready to become a mother, donor sperm is an option. There are a number of ways donor sperm can be used to help you achieve a pregnancy, including intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), intrauterine insemination (IUI) and IVF.
- Donor eggs – Women who are not suitable for egg freezing can consider using donor eggs to become pregnant. The donor egg can be fertilised by sperm and implanted in your womb or a surrogate’s womb.
Is egg freezing for you?
At your first consultation, we will have a comprehensive discussion about egg freezing and undertake some tests to see if your ovarian reserve means that it is a possibility for you. We’ll also have a detailed discussion about your other options, so you can make an informed decision about the best step forward for you. To make an appointment, call (03) 9418 8299 or book online.