Even during the pandemic, fertility clinics have seen a sharp rise in the number of women enquiring about egg freezing.
While there are many reasons why a woman may elect to freeze her eggs, regulations in the UK are extremely restrictive, stipulating that eggs frozen for social reasons can only be stored for up to ten years. Then, a person would have to decide whether to use those eggs or destroy them.
Freezing technology has come a long way since regulations were first made, leading many experts to argue there’s currently no medical reason to limit storage so restrictively.
As a result, the UK government plans to extend the storage limit. This will allow people to be able to store frozen eggs, sperm and embryos for up to 55 years regardless of the reason for freezing — giving them more choice when it comes to their fertility.
Already, this has seen concerns that more women will delay motherhood until later in life — even into their 50s and 60s. Based on my own research and that of others, many women who freeze their eggs do not want to delay motherhood into their 50s and 60s — and instead wish to have children as soon as they are able to.
It’s also worth noting that many UK fertility clinics will not routinely provide fertility treatment of any kind to a women much beyond the age of 50, whether this is with her own eggs or that of a donor. So these practices would also have to change in order for women to delay motherhood into their 50s.
Instead, the extended limit means more women in many different situations will be able to choose to become a mother at a time that is right for them, which most often will be in their late 30s or early to mid 40s.
Since 2013, the number of egg-freezing cycles performed by UK clinics has more than doubled as greater numbers of women seek to have children later, even when their natural fertility may have otherwise declined.
Women undergo egg freezing for many different reasons including illness or medical treatment (such as chemotherapy) that may leave them infertile, or because they lack a partner.
To freeze their eggs, a woman must undergo hormonal stimulation, which helps her to produce more eggs than she would in her normal monthly cycle. Then, these eggs are surgically retrieved and frozen at -196℃ for potential future use.
When egg freezing was first legalised and regulated in the UK in 2000, there were many unknowns about who would use the technology, why, and about how long the frozen eggs would remain viable. It’s now widely accepted that once frozen, eggs do not age or decay — so may be viable indefinitely.
Before the pending change in regulations, only women who were freezing their eggs for medical reasons — such as chemotherapy — could store their eggs for up to 55 years.
Women undergoing the procedure for social reasons (such as lacking a partner) were only able to freeze their eggs for up to ten years — at which point their eggs would have to be used or destroyed. But based on what we know about egg freezing, there was no medical reason for this limit — which is why I and others argued to change it.
Freedom to choose
Currently, the typical woman who freezes her eggs for social reasons is around 37 years of age, single, and earning above average income.
The women I spoke to in my previous research said their decision to freeze their eggs was often shaped by the fear that they were running out of time to find the right partner and start a conventional family. Many also feared rushing into a relationship with the wrong partner just to have a child. Egg freezing gave these women a chance to find the right partner, and build a secure relationship.
Many of the women had also wanted a child for many years and would have preferred actively trying to conceive over freezing their eggs. Others felt they had not deliberately chosen to delay motherhood. Rather, they hadn’t become a mother for reasons outside their control.
Based on my research and other studies on the subject, egg freezing often isn’t about putting off motherhood for as long as possible. Rather, it’s about maintaining the possibility to have a child with a chosen partner in the future, or when a person feels they’re ready to have a child.
Research also shows that women who freeze their eggs don’t want to pursue motherhood for the first time in their 50s and 60s. Rather, they want the option to use their eggs in their early to mid-40s with a partner of their choosing.
Egg freezing is expensive, invasive, painful and not without risk. While some women may choose to delay motherhood until much later as a result of these storage limit changes, it’s unlikely large numbers of women will delay childbearing as a result. Instead, increased storage time limits are likely to give women the option to use their eggs to conceive when it best suits them.
By Kylie Baldwin, senior lecturer, De Montfort University