Future Families: The Facts About Egg-Freezing
Aug 31, 2016 02:00PM ● Published by Becca Newell
America’s once-ubiquitous nuclear family isn’t quite as prevalent as it used to be. Not only are family dynamics changing—stay-at-home dads, single-parent households, and never-married mothers, to name a few, have increased dramatically since the ‘60s—but women are having children later in life, a result of lower teen pregnancies and improvements in reproductive technology.
Egg-freezing, or mature oocyte cryopreservation, is one such improvement. And while it’s beneficial in helping women increase their chances of pregnancy, particularly following treatments for illnesses, like cancer, or for couples suffering from fertility issues, there are some risks to consider.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “bleeding, infection, or damage to the bowel or bladder” can occur, albeit rarely, during egg retrieval. Additional concerns may arise if general anesthesia is required. Other risks—again, rarely—stem from the use of fertility drugs, which might be compulsory to increase the amount of retrievable eggs. (Experts recommend freezing about 20 to 30 eggs; six to eight of which will be used per pregnancy attempt). In a few instances, these hormones can lead to swollen ovaries, causing mild abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, and other similar symptoms.
Emotional ImpactThe more commonplace side effect, experts suggest, isn’t physiological, but emotional. For some, egg-freezing gives a sense of false hope, when—statistically speaking—the procedure far from guarantees successful results.
“Around 1.5 million [Assisted Reproductive Technology] cycles are performed each year worldwide, with an estimated 350,000 babies born,” according to The European Society of Human Reproductions and Embryology. In other words, less than 25 percent of treatments (using both frozen and fresh eggs) are successful.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated the percentage of live births with frozen eggs to be 43 percent compared to 50 percent with fresh eggs. While the technology of egg-freezing has improved, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest freezing—and thawing—doesn’t, in some way, lessen egg quality.
More recently, egg freezing has been rejected by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine as a means to delay childbirth. “As women grow older, it becomes more likely that their eggs will have chromosomal abnormalities, which increases the risk of miscarriage and certain disorders,” says ASRM.
In order to reduce the risk of miscarriage, the eggs must be retrieved (and frozen) while the woman is in her reproductive prime—typically, her twenties or early thirties. Despite that recommendation, women tend to freeze their eggs later in their thirties, contributing to even lower live birth rates.
It’s worth noting that these statistics contradict those publicized by Donor Egg Bank USA, a network of frozen egg donation programs. According to its website, “live birth rates [with frozen eggs] are over 47 percent at age 40.”
Another facet of treatment that requires some deliberation is the financial burden. The cost of the procedure ranges from $5,000 to more than $15,000, without including any medications that may be required. Lastly, it’s important to consider the outcome of any unused eggs. Some women choose to donate them to others or to a research facility; another option is to discard them.
And concern over one’s emotional wellbeing isn’t just limited to the women freezing their eggs; much of the ongoing research examines the potential ramifications for the children conceived from frozen eggs.
Although several studies comparing non-IVF and IVF children suggest few differences in terms of birthweight, academic achievements, and behavioral issues, one study reported that IVF-conceived infants were two to four times more likely to have certain birth defects. Most statistics, unfortunately, don’t distinguish between frozen and fresh embryos, so data remains inconclusive as to any potential long-term medical and developmental risks.
However, as for psychological implications, one review of IVF births concluded that “the well-being of the children (and later adults) born from long-term frozen embryos cannot and should not be ignored.”