Egg freezing at a glance
- A woman can freeze her eggs for use at a later time for such medical reasons as undergoing cancer treatments that may destroy her eggs, or for such social reasons as delaying motherhood for a career.
- In recent years the medical community has accepted egg freezing as a non-experimental procedure, primarily due to advances in freezing techniques.
- Women interested in this preservation option should discuss it with their reproductive physician to completely understand the medical and social implications of egg freezing.
Better freezing technique
Freezing fertilized eggs (embryo cryopreservation) is currently the best option to preserve a woman’s fertility due to medical or social reasons. Embryos frozen to use in future in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures have high odds of implanting and creating a successful pregnancy, especially when compared to frozen eggs that are thawed then fertilized.
However, egg freezing (oocyte cryopreservation) without fertilization is now increasingly successful. A woman may opt to use donor sperm to fertilize her eggs, or simply to freeze her eggs so that they may be thawed and fertilized in the future once she wishes to conceive or, in the case of cancer patients, is cancer free.
The human oocyte (“egg”) has been difficult to freeze because it is a large cell and the genetic apparatus is very vulnerable. This means that if there is damage from the freeze or the thawing process, the egg may not fertilize properly and make a normal embryo.
The ability to freeze and preserve eggs has advanced greatly with technical improvements in the procedure called vitrification. This ultra-rapid freezing method avoids the ice crystal formation, which is detrimental during freezing, since the ice crystal can break the cell membrane.
In October of 2012 the American Society for Reproductive Medicine declared that egg freezing was standard fertility practice and no longer considered experimental. Many studies have now demonstrated that vitrified eggs produce pregnancies at comparable rates to eggs that have never been frozen.
Egg freezing for medical reasons
Women who don’t have a male partner and will be undergoing radiation, chemotherapy or removal of the ovaries for cancer and a variety of other medical conditions may want to consider egg freezing. (If a woman has a partner, freezing embryos is recommended in most cases). After she has recovered from her disease, if she no longer has good egg production, the frozen eggs can be thawed and used to conceive.
Sometimes a couple may not wish to produce more embryos than can be used in a single IVF cycle. They may wish to limit the number of eggs placed with the sperm for fertilization, and freeze the remainder. Rarely, in the midst of an IVF cycle, sperm is not available due to illness or unforeseen circumstances. The eggs can then be frozen for later insemination.
Social egg freezing
Women may know that their career or social path means that they will not be trying to conceive until their later reproductive years. Perhaps they haven’t yet met “Mr. Right,” or they are not heterosexually oriented. For many women, egg freezing can be viewed as a sort of fertility insurance policy.
These women may choose to freeze their eggs in their 20s or early 30s. At this point in their lives, women’s eggs are generally more viable and there are more of them, as egg reserves and viability decrease with age.
Complex questions often arise when women consider this decision. Here are some examples:
- How likely is it that I’ll need my frozen eggs to get pregnant?
- How many should I freeze? Is there a number that will guarantee pregnancy in the future?
- What message does it send to the guy I’m dating if I freeze my eggs? I’m worried he’ll think I feel uncertain about our future.
- I know I have to have some fertility testing done to freeze my eggs, what if it is abnormal? What do I do then?
Overall, there are no definitive answers to these questions. But the answers will probably vary significantly depending on how old the woman is when she freezes her eggs and when she actually starts trying to get pregnant. Typically, if a woman decides to freeze her eggs, the sooner she does it, the better.
Whether or not a woman freezes her eggs is a personal decision that involves many factors specific to the individual’s age and circumstances. Women considering egg freezing should meet with a reproductive endocrinologist to determine whether it is the right decision.
Freezing for egg donation
Egg donation has been a gratifying option for many with diminished ovarian function or genetic disease. But fresh egg donation holds many challenges. Having banked frozen eggs available, often at lower cost, may open doors for more women.
Egg freezing also can improve the synchronization of donation cycles. In the future, egg freezing may facilitate more efficient egg donation and improve cost effectiveness.
Although we are not a donor egg agency, there are many reputable donor egg agencies locally and national who actively recruit egg donors.