It’s a bold title, I’ll grant you that.
But I’ve been thinking about this one for some time. And as I’ve explored it, my conviction’s only grown stronger.
Egg freezing—or oocyte cryopreservation for the boffins—is when your eggs are removed and cryogenically stored to dramatically decelerate their age-related decline. The treatment’s been glamorised in recent years by celebrities like Rita Ora and Sofía Vergara, and companies as diverse as Uber and Unilever offer egg freezing as a benefit of working there.
Okay—so far, so empowering.
But despite the hype, over here in the UK egg freezing is still largely disregarded in the realm of fertility treatments. According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK’s fertility regulator, in 2017 there were only 1,463 egg-freezing cycles. Compare that to 70,000 IVF treatment cycles in the same year alone. Between 2010 and 2017, just 700 babies were born through egg freezing in the UK, 0.1% of annual births.
But if egg freezing is such an uncommon treatment, why do I think it’s a con?
Simple: it’s not really about female empowerment in the workplace at all. For my money, the whole thing’s been designed by global corporations to disincentivise women from taking time off work to have babies.
If egg freezing is your plan B, well—you might want a plan C, too
According to Marcia Inhorn, sociologist of assisted reproduction at Yale, egg freezing has been presented as a way of deferring what biology will eventually demand of us for four decades. Since the 80 it’s been celebrated as a means of relieving the mounting psychological pressure emanating both from our family and from society at large.
But even after having undergone this expensive and invasive ordeal, a great many women still then wait to meet someone before defrosting their eggs, or else end up getting pregnant naturally and leave their eggs untouched. Yet according to the HFEA, even when these eggs are used for IVF, only 19% lead to live births, compared to 30% when donor eggs are used. But on the flipside of that second stat, the majority of women never even consider donor eggs when looking to get pregnant.
Nevertheless, the London Women’s Clinic reports that egg freezing has seen a 300% increase in popularity since 2014. More widespread coverage of the treatment has advocated egg freezing as offering hope to women who either hope to delay pregnancy or else want to buy some time before meeting a partner. Egg freezing offers some breathing space—at least ostensibly. Its marketing spiel would have you believe you’re preserving your chance of having a baby without compromising on other aspects of your life. But in actual fact, if egg freezing is an insurance policy, well—it’s low-value. The odds of it ‘paying out’ are pretty slim. To quote Kylie Baldwin, a medical sociologist at the Centre for Reproduction Research at De Montfort, “The technology has been presented as a magic bullet to level the playing field between men and women, but success rates are still low.”
For egg-freezing companies, COVID was a game changer
The pandemic restrictions we saw worldwide in early 2020 were perhaps the biggest milestone in the history of egg freezing. Lockdown exacted callous revenge on those who’d been carefully and strategically biding their time, waiting to see what would unfold in their love lives. The clock stopped, the bars went unfrequented—yet ageing yielded to no pause button.
The pressure was especially palpable for women in their late 30s. At the stroke of a single government announcement, their chances of conception flashed before their eyes, then seemed to evaporate into thin air. In-person dating was out of the question. So when fertility clinics were granted permission to reopen in May 2020, they experienced a frantic, unprecedented clamour for appointments. ‘Wait and see’ no longer felt like a reasonable mantra.
And let us not downplay the sheer level of costs involved: as high as £8,000 per cycle—with a minimum of three cycles recommended. And that figure doesn’t even account for medication (£1,500), storage (£300), and thawing and embryo transferral (£2,500). The treatment is also a logistical and emotional marathon, involving scans, hormone self-injections, and egg retrieval performed under general anaesthetic. It can be gruelling—and some women have gone public with their dissatisfaction over proceedings. One American wrote for Glamour how she’d ‘spent $17K freezing my eggs—and I regret every penny.’
There’s an unpleasant paradox at play, too
Even beyond the nitty-gritty of costs and outcomes, the very concept of egg freezing encapsulates some fairly paradoxical logic: by the age at which many women decide to freeze their eggs, those eggs are less viable.
According to the HFEA, women over 35 have a significantly lower chance of their eggs being able to form healthy embryos. This rises steeply at 37—and yet the HFEA reports that 38 is the most common age at which women decide to freeze their eggs. Those in their late 30s will of course feel more compelled than younger women to preserve their reproductive chances if they’re still single, and they’re also more likely to have a greater reserve of capital to dip into if need be. Yet therein lies the paradox: a younger woman (under 30, let’s say) is far less likely to have the future-focused mindset that would lead her to egg freezing—yet she’s the exact demographic whose treatment would most likely lead to success.
Although let’s be clear: even IVF cycles using eggs removed at peak fertility still yield only a 30% chance of pregnancy.
So what’s the best path forward if you’re considering egg freezing?
Well, first things first: it’s up to you.
No matter what your friends, family, or even partner says, every woman has the right to take steps to preserve her chances of conceiving later in life if she so chooses. But what you must do is carve out some serious time to do your research, talk to professionals—several professionals if you can, to garner a diverse range of expert opinions—and envisage the long-term financial implications of the treatment. Of course, in a philosophical sense you can’t really ‘put a price’ on motherhood, sure. But in the cold light of day, well—you kind of can put a price on it, too.
The simple truth echoed by most reputable reproduction experts is that there’s not enough evidence on egg freezing one way or the other to conduct a cost–benefit analysis. The number of women undergoing egg freezing is a fraction of those going down the IVF route, so “it will be a long time before any meaningful data is amassed” according to Kylie Baldwin, the medical sociologist we met earlier.
Here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth: until scientists have established to a decent degree of accuracy just how effective egg freezing really is, the cultural narrative underlying the treatment should be shifted from one of empowerment to one recommending a more cautious approach. The figures we’ve explored today certainly don’t make for optimism. And while egg freezing may relieve some women from the pressures of time and society, in some sense the treatment has also served to tighten the screw—at eye-watering costs—while doing little to actually improve these same women’s odds of ultimate success.
And one final piece of advice? It might be worth reformulating your financial vision. Rather than ploughing a breathtaking sum into egg freezing, consider an entirely alternative solution: accelerating your journey to finding a partner—and starting a family that way, instead.
I might just know a thing or two about that.