Women Hedge Bets By Banking Their Eggs

At least 138 clinics are freezing and banking eggs  --  more than double the number three years ago. But some say more safety research is needed.
At least 138 clinics are freezing and banking eggs -- more than double the number three years ago. But some say more safety research is needed. (Reproductive Medicine Associates Of New York)
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007

As the number of women delaying motherhood continues to rise, many fertility clinics are starting to offer a new service that allows them to freeze some of their eggs to buy more time on their biological clocks.

At least 138 clinics are freezing and banking eggs -- more than double the number three years ago, according to one count. Hundreds of women have frozen their eggs so far, and the numbers are increasing dramatically, experts say.

"I think we're sitting at that tipping point between technology that is quasi-experimental and tipping over into fairly widespread use," said David A. Grainger, president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which represents fertility clinics. "It's one of the most exciting areas in our field right now."

The popularity of egg-freezing is driven by advances that have boosted the chances of having a baby using thawed eggs and intensifying demand from childless women in their 30s. But the trend has sparked intense debate about whether the technology is ready for wider use and whether society is ready for its impact.

Proponents say egg-freezing could save many women from the wrenching disappointment of running out of time to bear their own children, marking a profound step toward freeing them from some of the constraints imposed by biology.

"In the same way the birth control pill gave women in the '70s a whole new set of options, I think egg-freezing can do the same with this new generation of women -- giving them more control over their fertility and giving them more options," said Christy Jones of Extend Fertility Inc., of Woburn, Mass., which markets egg-freezing for clinics.

But some experts say more research is needed to know how well egg-freezing works and whether babies born from frozen eggs grow up healthy. Although there is no evidence that egg-freezing poses risks for offspring, far too few babies have been born to know for sure. The first pregnancy from frozen eggs was reported in Australia in 1986, and there is no reliable information about the outcome. There were very few such births until recently, and only 300 to 600 such babies have been born worldwide. Researchers are just now making plans to systematically track the health of these babies.

Beyond whether egg-freezing is safe and effective, critics say the prospect raises a host of societal issues, including: Is it in the best interests of women or their children to delay parenthood to the 40s or beyond? Is the technology further transforming pregnancy from a natural process into an expensive high-tech project? And does it let society off the hook for failing to create family-friendlier workplaces for younger women early in their careers?

"This opens the gate to all kinds of questions," said Evelyne Shuster, a medical ethicist and philosopher who has advised the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), which represents reproductive health specialists. "We need to address these questions before we let any of this go further than it already has."

Fertility clinics have long worked with frozen sperm and embryos, but freezing eggs has proved much harder. In recent years, however, scientists, motivated primarily by the goal of helping women left sterile by cancer treatment, have honed their techniques, experts say. Some eggs are still lost in the process, and success rates vary among clinics and by women's ages. But advocates say women now have a better chance of having a baby with eggs they froze in their 30s than with their own unfrozen eggs in their 40s.

"I have traditionally been very conservative," said Michael J. Tucker, an embryologist at Georgia Reproductive Specialists in Atlanta and Shady Grove Fertility in Rockville. "But I'm ready to throw caution to the wind and say, 'We're ready to do this.' "

There are no official figures on how many clinics offer egg-freezing or how many women are using it. One advocacy group for cancer survivors, Fertile Hope, recently surveyed 430 clinics and found that 138 were providing the service, up from 58 three years earlier. When the group queried those centers further for The Washington Post, most said they were doing it for cancer patients and for extending fertility, and they reported having done more than 500 egg retrievals for women delaying motherhood. Extend Fertility, which recently expanded to a sixth city, says it has signed up more than 200 women in the past three years.

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