In the last few years, many fertility clinics across the country have started programs offering egg freezing and banking to their patients. These services are beneficial to women who wish to delay motherhood, or to those who need to preserve their fertility due to cancer.
As a woman ages, her fertility potential declines as a direct result of the decrease in the number and quality of the eggs remaining in her ovaries. In fact, a woman’s fertility peaks at the age of 27, and by the age of 40 her chance of conceiving is less than 10 percent. By freezing eggs at an early age, a woman can preserve her fertility for the future. At a later time in her life, when she is ready to be a mother, these eggs can be thawed, fertilized with sperm, and transferred back into her uterus. Unlike the ovary and the eggs within, the uterus does not seem to age in the same manner. Many studies have shown that women can successfully carry pregnancies well into their forties and even early fifties. However, as a woman ages, especially after the age of 40, pregnancy complications do start to rise, with a significant increase seen in the mid fifties.
More and more women are choosing to delay parenthood for various reasons. In addition, there are many women who don’t desire to delay parenthood, but who have not yet met the right partner with whom they would like to raise a family. Finally, fertility preservation may be especially relevant for those women who have a family history of early menopause. For all of these women, freezing eggs allows them to expand their reproductive options.
Due to improvements in the treatment of many cancers, survival rates have been greatly extended. In fact, there are many cancers affecting young women that are completely treatable. However, these amazing treatments can also cause damage to reproductive organs, especially the ovaries. For these women diagnosed with cancer, egg freezing offers the opportunity to preserve fertility before treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery begin.
Egg freezing also is beneficial for those couples who have moral or religious objections to creating excess embryos during their own fertility treatment. While undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF), it is very common for a couple to have excess embryos that are not transferred into the uterus during the initial cycle. These patients could opt to fertilize only as many eggs as would be utilized in the IVF process, then freeze the remaining unfertilized eggs, thereby offering an acceptable solution for those couples with ethical concerns about freezing embryos.
Fertility clinics have been freezing embryos for a long time with great success. Freezing eggs is much more difficult, but recent scientific breakthroughs have led to significant improvements in the freezing techniques. Although egg freezing is still considered investigational by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, recent improvements have boosted pregnancy rates dramatically. In fact, many clinics have reported pregnancy rates well above 35 percent, though pregnancy rates are dependent on the age of the woman when her eggs are frozen. The first baby born from the egg freezing process was in 1986, and since then it is estimated that more than 300 children have been born from frozen eggs, most of these within the last few years. Thus far there seems to be no increased rate of birth defects when compared to the general population, though long-term studies in this area will be needed.
Although egg freezing seems to be safe and increasingly effective, it is not a guarantee of future fertility. In fact, several cycles of ovarian stimulation and egg retrieval may be necessary to get enough eggs to ensure a relatively good chance of pregnancy in the future. It is imperative for women to have a lengthy discussion with their physician about a realistic assessment of how egg freezing can improve their future fertility potential. Egg freezing is one of the most exciting areas in the field of reproductive medicine, as it has great potential to help women to expand their reproductive options.
Santa Monica resident Dr. Kristin Bendikson is physician partner at USC Fertility, the private not-for-profit fertility practice of the University of Southern California in Downtown Los Angeles. She also serves as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the USC Keck School of Medicine. For more information about egg freezing options and The Fertility Preservation Program at USC visit USCFertility.org or USCFertilityPreservation.org.