BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Mark Surrey, fertility specialist to the Kardashians, opens with the story of a 44-year-old lawyer who waited too long to freeze her eggs. The patient radiated health, he says, but age had damaged her pregnancy chances.
“It’s not something you can fix with a diet or with acupuncture or with Pilates.”
About 100 guests sit before him in the Beverly Wilshire’s Champagne Room, sipping bubbly and jotting notes at this “Egg Freezing Party” hosted by the marketing start-up EggBanxx. The company rents swanky hotel spaces across the country to pitch women on a fertility treatment once available only to young cancer patients.
The EggBanxx slogan: “Lean in. But freeze first.”
As more women delay parenthood, a growing number are turning to egg freezing, a procedure deemed experimental until 2012, as a way to pause the biological clock. But some doctors and medical ethicists are troubled by the marketing of egg freezing and the use of it as a hedge against aging.
Demand for the treatment skyrocketed last year, fertility specialists say, after Facebook and Apple offered to cover a portion of its cost as a benefit for employees. The procedure’s popularity and low odds of success have heightened tension between marketers and some doctors: What is responsible advertising — and what is fear mongering?
A guest in black yoga spandex wipes away tears. Her EggBanxx pamphlet lists the estimated decline of her childbearing ability, the root of her anxiety: Her current chance of conception is 10 percent, it says. The number drops to 8 percent on her 40th birthday. Five percent on her 44th.
Nicole Diez, 38, broke up 18 months ago with her last serious boyfriend, a Hollywood stuntman. Two empty champagne flutes sit beneath her gold-lacquered chair. She tucked away $30,000 over decades for a house. She wonders if the money should fund her last chance for children.
EggBanxx, which launched last spring in New York, is an early firm attempting to broaden the appeal of egg freezing. The company aims to harness the “fertile, rather than the infertile” market, according to internal documents. It is not a medical provider but a middleman between patients and doctors for reproductive treatments, offering “discount” packages and low-interest loans for services that can start at $7,000 and reach $30,000.
More than 100 physicians have signed up to partner with EggBanxx. Patient enrollment began in September. So far, about 100 women have paid for the services. At the same time, fertility clinics are offering the service on their own.
Three years ago, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), which sets standards for fertility clinics, lifted the “experimental” label from egg freezing. The group won’t recommend the treatment for elective use, however, until more research is conducted. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists endorsed the move, emphasizing that women should not rely on the procedure “for the sole purpose of circumventing reproductive aging.”
Others in the medical community have raised specific concerns about the marketing of egg freezing.
“Commerce, the absence of data and fear is a pretty toxic mix,” said Arthur Caplan, director of New York University’s Division of Medical Ethics. “Companies that sell this procedure are not held accountable to whether or not you have a baby. You’ve paid your fees.”
“It should primarily be the role of physicians to raise awareness about reproductive decision-making,” said Samantha Butts, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania.
There are also questions about a lack of data — egg freezing is no guarantee of pregnancy. The chance one frozen egg will yield a baby, even in younger women, is between 2 percent and 12 percent, according to the ASRM.
“Success here is not just freezing your eggs,” said Caplan, a bioethics professor. “It’s having a baby to take home. And a healthy baby at that. There is optimism based on very, very little hard data. And it will take years and years for us to get that data.”
EggBanxx says it is offering a valuable service to women and is marketing responsibly.
“Because egg freezing is so new, doctors would prefer to wait 10 years. But if you talk to people who understand the science, the science is already here,” EggBanxx chief executive Gina Bartasi said. “We are looking out for women.”
One egg freezing cycle can cost up to $10,000. Exact prices depend on the medical provider. The treatment is generally not covered by insurance.
EggBanxx, which bills itself as a “national network of the most innovative fertility clinics,” offers generous financing, Bartasi said. Clients can limit procedure costs to monthly installments of $250, paid directly to EggBanxx.
“We want to provide interested women with the information and resources they’re looking for as they consider egg freezing,” Bartasi said. “The demand and interest is there. We want to help get the word out and educate.”
The company reaches prospective clients through social media. It recently tweeted: “Eggs do go bad. Have yours?” with an image of a cracked, frowning cartoon egg, smoking what appears to be a cigarette.
EggBanxx parties, dubbed “Let’s Chill,” are scheduled this year in New York and Boston, with more cities to be announced. Last month’s Los Angeles event was booked at twice its capacity, Bartasi said. Some guests received gift cards worth up to $500.
“We will be like Uber, but for egg freezing,” Bartasi said.
Most people learn about egg freezing through headlines and talk shows, said Caplan, the NYU bioethics professor.
“Women might see these messages and think, ‘I really can stop the biological clock,’ ” he said. “None of what’s out there hints at cost and failure.”
Egg freezing is young, as far as medical treatments go, said Samantha M. Pfeifer, chair of the ASRM practice committee, noting data is limited.
In 2009, researchers examined 936 babies born around the world with frozen eggs from donors younger than 30. The infants appeared, on average, just as healthy as those conceived naturally.
No one can confidently say if frozen eggs from a 40-year-old woman will behave similarly to those from a 30-year-old woman, Pfeifer added. “We just don’t have the answers.”
Middle-age patients are making a high-stakes gamble, she said. Top doctors typically recommend at least three $10,000-cycles, about 30 eggs, for clients 35 and older. Storage fees add $500 annually.
At Shady Grove Fertility in Rockville, Md. — the largest fertility clinic in the country, according to the ASRM — up to 3,750 eggs chill on any given day. The oocytes sit on devices that look like coffee stirrers in liquid nitrogen tanks. Cartoons brighten the lab walls: A sperm cell wears a baseball hat. Another sports a green mohawk.
Demand for egg freezing recently surged at Shady Grove Fertility, which treats women from around the world. Since 2010, the number of new clients has grown 60 percent each year, spokeswoman Kasey Nichols said. Appointment bookings spiked 91 percent after the Facebook and Apple announcements.
The average monthly number of egg freezing patients has quintupled since 2010 to several hundred per year, physician Anitha Nair estimates.
Shady Grove Fertility’s egg freezing success rate, defined as a 20-week gestation period or a birth, for elective procedures hovers around 40 percent, Nair said. That number is significantly lower for women closer to 40. The clinic, which has not partnered with EggBanxx, began widely offering egg freezing to women under 41 in 2012, just as the experimental label lifted.
Shady Grove’s early results are promising, Nair said, but even “optimal” patients should adjust expectations: in vitro fertilization pregnancy rates among donors younger than 30, the gold standard, generally peak at 60 percent.
The best time to freeze, she said: Between 30 and 38 — and not much earlier.
“If someone’s really, really young — say 25 — statistics show they’re more likely to be able to meet someone great and start a family on their own,” Nair said.
The bartender pours the first flute of champagne about 5:30 p.m. Women, fresh off their workday, mingle with fertility doctors in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, once the set of “Pretty Woman.” A camera crew captures their hushed exchanges.
Former Los Angeles TV anchor Suzanne Rico, who spent more than $100,000 on fertility treatments to have her two boys by surrogate after age 40, exclaims into a microphone: “You can freeze your fertility in time. That’s revolutionary.”
Surrey nods. He’s one of three physician panelists tonight fielding questions like: “What happens to your frozen eggs in the event of an earthquake?” Publicizing the treatment, he said, is a public service.
“Anyone using legitimate information to inform people is doing a good deed,” Surrey said. “[EggBanxx] is socially aware. It helps us reach people who may need the service. For whatever reason, highly educated women don’t always know about this.”
Diez, a nurse from nearby Santa Monica, brought her best friend, Hattie Chou, for support. Chou, 33, fetches them another glass of champagne. The women hold each other as Surrey speaks.
Chou, a real estate agent, rubs Diez’s shoulders. She wants to talk this over.
“Look, they’re selling this,” Chou says. “They’re making so much money. But how much of this is reality?”
Diez has always wanted children: A girl or a boy or both — it doesn’t matter. She would teach them to cherish the Catholic faith. She would take them to Paris, her dream vacation.
“If I have the power to do something like this, like egg freezing, I should do it,” Diez says. “Or else I could regret it for the rest of my life.”
Tonight’s stories and statistics compelled her decision: She will spend her house savings on egg freezing. She might book an appointment tomorrow.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. Mark Surrey has signed up to work with Eggbanxx. Dr. Surrey has not signed up to work with the company to at this point.