Should I Freeze My Eggs to Extend My Fertility?

What to Know Before Making the Decision to Freeze Your Eggs

cyropreservation container of eggs
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Whether or not you should freeze your eggs in your 30s or 20s—in order to defer having children until you’re older—is a controversial but important issue in the world of fertility. You may have heard about egg freezing from a news article or a friend. Or, you may have attended a marketing event sponsored by a fertility clinic, offering egg-freezing services to young, professional women. Maybe you’re lucky enough to work for one of the few corporations offering elective egg-freezing coverage in their benefits package.

While your OB/GYN may bring up your biological clock and the importance of not delaying childbearing, your doctor is unlikely to mention the egg freezing option. There’s a reason for that. Not because egg freezing is a bad choice, but because it is a complex one.

If you’re considering egg freezing, you should know exactly what egg freezing can and can’t do for you, what the egg freezing process entails, your options if you choose to freeze (or not); and the risks, success rates, and costs of the procedure.

Egg freezing can be a promising option for some, but it’s not a decision to take lightly.

What Is Social (or Elective) Egg Freezing?

To understand social (or elective) egg freezing, you need to understand normal ovarian aging. A baby girl is born with all the eggs she will ever have in her ovaries. As a woman ages, the number of eggs in the ovary naturally decreases.

This process of ovarian aging begins before a baby girl is even born.

A 20-week old female fetus has between 6 and 7 million eggs in her ovaries. When that baby girl is born, the number has already decreased to just over 1 million. This is very different from men, whose reproductive systems (post-puberty) create an estimated 250 million new sperm cells daily. The ovaries cannot produce new eggs.

(Side note: Male fertility also declines with age. Just not as rapidly and dramatically as it does in women.)

As you get older, the eggs in your ovaries decrease not only in quantity but also in quality. This is why a woman age 37 has a higher risk of miscarriage when compared to a 27 year old.

Ideally, from a purely biological perspective, if a woman wants to have genetically-related children, she should start trying to have those kids before age 35. Even better, before age 30. We don’t live in an ideal world. Many women are not ready, able, or prepared to have kids by 30.

This is where elective egg freezing comes in. If, for example, a 30-year-old woman knows she doesn't want or can’t start having kids for another ten years, she can choose to have some of her eggs cryopreserved.

Later, when she’s older, she can try to get pregnant the regular way. If she conceives on her own, great! However, if she struggles to get pregnant, a fertility specialist can take those eggs frozen when she was younger and use them to (hopefully) help her conceive via IVF treatment.

The cryopreserved eggs will be of higher quality than any eggs retrieved 10 or more years later. Those frozen “younger” eggs will be more likely to become fertilized, more likely to produce healthier embryos, and more likely to lead to a clinical pregnancy and live birth.

In some ways, it’s like becoming a potential egg donor—to your future self. But you can’t go back to that egg donor and get more eggs once they are gone. You only have what you froze years before.

Why Is Elective Egg Freezing an Option Now, When It Wasn’t Before?

Elective “fertility preservation” is new, but egg freezing is not. Egg freezing for medical reasons has been around for decades. The first live birth resulting from a formerly cryopreserved egg occurred in 1986.

Until recently, egg freezing was restricted for medical-indication only. Medical reasons a woman may freeze her eggs include:

Earlier egg freezing methods were less successful. They used a “slow-freeze” process that sometimes formed ice crystals in the eggs. The ice crystals damaged the eggs and made them unusable. This was “better than nothing” for those with medical problems since the only other option was to have no chance and no eggs.

Then, a new method of egg freezing was developed. Known as vitrification, this super-quick freezing process doesn’t allow ice crystals to form. Eggs cryopreserved with vitrification have a much better survival rate. In other words, they are more likely to get through the freezing, thawing, and fertilization process than slow-frozen eggs.

At first, vitrification of eggs was considered experimental. Then, in 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) removed the experimental label. While the ASRM doesn’t recommend marketing egg freezing for the purposes of delaying childbearing, the removal of the experimental label led some fertility clinics to start offering elective egg freezing.

Why Do Women Choose to Freeze Their Eggs for Non-Medical Reasons?

The most common reasons women have for choosing elective egg freezing include:

  • Not having found the right partner (This is the number one reason, according to the research.)
  • Career or educational goals
  • Lifestyle or travel plans
  • Ethical issues with embryo freezing (In other words, they have a partner and could freeze embryos, but prefer not to.)

“Personally and professionally, I definitely think that egg freezing is a great idea for anyone who is considering having children in the future but is not currently interested or able to conceive now,” explains Dr. Diana Chavkin, a board certified fertility specialist who currently sees patients for egg freezing/fertility preservation and infertility at HRC Fertility in Los Angeles. Dr. Chavkin has used her expertise to help develop fertility preservation programs across the country, and she has helped hundreds of women through the egg freezing process since 2009.

“On a personal note, I convinced my sister and helped my best friend to freeze their eggs,” shares Dr. Chavkin. “It is definitely something that I’d do myself. In fact, I had to do IVF to have my 1 year old child, and at the time that I was having a difficult time getting pregnant, I wished that I had frozen my eggs years before.” (Note that the current more successful egg freezing techniques were not available when Dr. Chavkin was of age to freeze her eggs.)

The Limits of Egg Freezing: Is It Really “Fertility Insurance?”

While Dr. Chavkin encourages cryopreservation to women needing to delay childbearing, she is careful to explain that egg freezing doesn’t give you the same fertility you would have had if you tried to get pregnant naturally at the time you froze your eggs.

“Egg freezing does not give you the same chances as you would have if you were having sex at that age,” says Dr. Chavkin. “Your best chance of trying to get pregnant is trying right now. But we know it will improve your chances if you plan on having a baby later, if you freeze now.”

Sometimes egg freezing is advertised as “freezing your fertility in time” or referred to as a kind of “fertility insurance.” This is somewhat misleading. “With life insurance, when you die, there is payment,” explains Dr. Chavkin. “When you freeze your eggs, there is no guarantee.” What egg freezing does offer is another option and the possibility of a better chance at conception, if you’re not able to conceive with your own eggs in the future.

What Are the Success Rates for Egg Freezing?

There is a misconception that one frozen egg is equal to one menstrual cycle. Therefore, you might think that freezing 12 eggs at age 33 will give you a “year’s worth of fertility,” like you would have had at age 33—but that’s not true.

There’s a lot of room for failure when you’re freezing eggs. To break it down, the egg must:

  • Survive the freezing process
  • Survive the thawing process
  • Successfully fertilize in the lab
  • Develop into a healthy embryo in the lab
  • Successfully transfer to the woman’s uterus
  • Result in a clinical pregnancy (that is, a pregnancy confirmed with a heart beat found via ultrasound)
  • Lead to a live birth months later

What are the odds of one frozen egg resulting in a live birth? According to the research, 2 to 12 percent per frozen egg. This is not the same as the live birth rate per total number of eggs banked, which is higher. What are the chances that your frozen eggs will lead to one baby?

One study found that women who froze 8 or more eggs before age 35 had a 40.8 percent chance of a live birth resulting from those eggs (possibly over many embryo transfer attempts). In this same study, women over the age of 35 who froze eight eggs had a 19.9 percent chance of a live birth.

This is why it’s best to freeze several eggs. The general recommendation is that 8 to 15 eggs be frozen for women age 35 or younger. For women over 35 years old, the decision of how many eggs to freeze needs to be determined on an individual basis.

You may need to go through a few cycles to get a good amount to bank. How many cycles you’ll need depends on how your body reacts to the fertility drugs, your age at the time of freezing, your ovarian reserves, and the skill of your physician. More cycles mean increased costs.

What Is the Ideal Age to Freeze Your Eggs?

Determining the ideal age to freeze your eggs is complicated. On the one hand, the younger you are when you freeze your eggs, the more likely you’ll have success with those eggs. On the other hand, you’re less likely to need them.

“You want to find the sweet spot,” explains Dr. Chavkin. “You don’t want to have all these women go through all these procedures, and then not use them, but at the same time, you don’t want to wait until a woman is older, like 40 years old, and wants to use her eggs, but not have a good chance of getting a good quantity or quality of eggs.”

If you’re looking for that sweet spot, it’s likely the early to mid-30s. Be aware that at the mid to late 30 range, there is a chance you will need multiple cycles to get a decent amount of eggs to cryopreserve. That means higher cost and more exposure to fertility drugs.

Is It Ever Too Late to Freeze Your Eggs?

The older you are, the less likely the eggs retrieved will be of high enough quality to lead to a successful birth. It may also be difficult to retrieve enough eggs (or any at all) to freeze. Many egg-freezing centers have age cutoffs somewhere between age 40 and 45. That said, a part of egg freezing is ovarian reserve testing. This is done before the decision to freeze.

“The woman who upon evaluation is found to have low ovarian reserve may choose not to proceed with egg freezing after learning that the chance of getting a good number of healthy eggs is very low,” says Dr. Chavkin. “[However,] an older woman, late 30’s/early 40’s, could still freeze her eggs, but it may take more stimulation cycles to get the same number of eggs as a woman who is younger.”

What’s Involved in Freezing Your Eggs?

Egg freezing isn’t a 1-day or even 1-week event. It’s important you understand all that’s involved before you decide to go through the egg freezing process. Here is a brief summary of what to expect:

  • Consultation appointments, possibly a few, with the doctor, before making the decision
  • A number of fertility tests, blood work and ultrasound to evaluate your ovarian reserves and other fertility factors. The ultrasounds will be transvaginal, which are not painful but can be uncomfortable.
  • STD/STI testing: You can’t freeze your eggs if you have an active sexually transmitted infection, but after the STD is treated, you could proceed.
  • Injections for 2 to 3 weeks, usually between one and three injections every day, which you’ll give yourself into the fatty tissue of your stomach
  • During this 2 to 3 week period, you’ll have between five and seven monitoring appointments, which will include blood work and transvaginal ultrasounds (to watch the follicle growth in your ovaries).
  • The egg retrieval, which involves being put under sedation. Your doctor will use an ultrasound-guided needle, which will go through your vaginal wall up to your ovaries, where the eggs will be taken.

The egg retrieved during the egg retrieval will immediately go to the embryology lab and cryopreserved. Then, they will go into storage. The eggs can be frozen indefinitely, though you will need to pay a yearly storage fee. In the future, when you decide to have kids, you’ll first try to get pregnant with sexual intercourse. Hopefully, you won’t even need to use your previously frozen eggs.

The eggs that survive the thawing process will be fertilized with your partner’s sperm (or donor sperm). Assuming you get some healthy embryos, one to three of those embryos will be transferred to your uterus via a catheter.

You will likely take hormones—they may be taken orally, via injection, or vaginal suppositories—before and after the embryo transfer.

What Are the Costs of Egg Freezing?

Not including the thaw-to-embryo-transfer portion, one egg freezing cycle costs on average between $7,000 and 15,000. The yearly storage fees run between $500 and 1,000 per year.

You may need multiple cycles, especially if you’re age 35 or older when you choose to freeze. Additional cycles may be discounted, depending on the policy of the clinic. The costs can be broken down into five parts:

  • Fertility testing and initial consultation (some of the testing may be covered)
  • Ultrasounds and blood work monitoring, egg retrieval, and actual cryopreservation of the eggs
  • Fertility drugs (injections) taken during the egg freezing cycle
  • Yearly storage fees
  • Thaw, fertilization, and embryo transfer (at a future date, when/if you decide to use your frozen eggs)

If you’re told the egg freezing cycle will cost less than $7,000, confirm that the price includes everything you need—including the fertility drugs. This is only to freeze your eggs. Later, if you decide to use your frozen eggs, expect to pay another $5,000.

To put all that in perspective, with the costs added up, if you’re initial egg freezing cycle is $12,000, and you pay $900 per year for storage for another five years, and then use those eggs at $5,000, your total bill would be $21,500. This is assuming you only need one egg freezing cycle and only one thaw-fertilization-embryo-transfer cycle.

Comparing this to the costs to infertile couples doing IVF, out-of-pocket expenses are on average $19,234 for one cycle, with each additional cycle another $6,955. If you’re over age 35, due to decreased fertility, it is more likely you’ll need a few IVF cycles to achieve success. (If you have previously frozen eggs from when you were younger, you may have IVF success more quickly.)

Elective egg freezing is rarely covered by health insurance. There are a few high-tech companies offering egg freezing in their benefits packages, but this is unusual.

Is Egg Freezing Safe?

There are some known and unknown risks to egg freezing. The risks are similar to those infertile couples face when they go through IVF treatment and women who become egg donors.

We can’t know all the long-term risks to egg freezing because it just hasn’t been studied. The technology hasn’t been around long enough. There are few (to no) studies on women with good fertility who have chosen to freeze their eggs long term and few studies on children who were conceived via previously frozen eggs.

This is what we do know: Egg freezing does not seem to increase the risk of congenital birth diseases.

In a study of 936 children who were conceived from previously cryopreserved eggs, the rate of genetic birth defects was found to be similar to the general population risk. This study included children conceived both via eggs cryopreserved with the slower, older methods of egg freezing and the newer, vitrification technology.

We don’t know whether child development or later adult health is impacted by cryopreservation of eggs. More time and studies are needed.

In the short term, women who decide freeze their eggs may experience side effects of the fertility drugs. Depending on which fertility drugs are used, side effects may include hot flashes, headaches, mood swings, bloating, nausea, weight gain, breast tenderness, spotting, and injection site soreness.

Women taking fertility drugs are at risk of developing ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). This occurs in one in 10 women taking injectable fertility drugs. For most women, OHSS is merely uncomfortable. However, left untreated, it can become very serious. Severe cases may require hospitalization, and in less than 1 percent of cases, loss of fertility or even death can occur.

The egg retrieval (which involves placing an ultrasound-guided needle through the vaginal wall, up to the ovaries) can cause cramping, spotting, and discomfort. You are sedated for the procedure. (There are risks to sedation and general anesthesia.)

There is a small risk of infection and puncture of nearby organs. Infection would be treated with antibiotics. In very rare cases, infection may lead to the surgical removal of the ovaries or fallopian tubes. Accidental puncture of nearby organs requires emergency surgery and may require a blood transfusion if there is substantial blood loss.

If you decide to use the cryopreserved eggs in the future, there is a small risk during the embryo transfer of infection. If more than one embryo is transferred, there is a risk of a multiple pregnancy and birth.

The long-term risks of fertility drugs in fertile women are not well known. There have been concerns that it may increase the potential for some cancers, but currently, research can’t say for certain either way.

“It’s true that during the time of stimulation, [a woman’s] estrogen levels are very high, so we know if there are underlying breast cancer cells, fertility drugs increase estrogen levels, which could bring it to the forefront,” explains Dr. Chavkin. But, from what we know now, fertility drugs don’t cause cancer if it’s not lingering in the background.

It will be another 10 to 15 years before we can truly study the long-term impact of fertility drugs on young, fertile women choosing to freeze their eggs. Dr. Chavkin does offer this reassurance: “The medications don’t stay in a woman’s body. They are given for a very short period of time, and once they are stopped, they don’t linger. There are no long-term levels that stay in the body.”

What Are the Arguments Against Egg Freezing?

While some believe egg-freezing offers a hopeful option to women who need or want to delay childbearing, not everyone agrees the technology should be used electively.

“Given the dearth of information about the risks, I'd have a hard time advising anyone to freeze their eggs for non-medical reasons,” says Dr. Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director at the Center for Genetics and Society. The Center for Genetics and Society is a Berkeley, California-based social justice organization that works to ensure assisted reproductive technologies benefit the common good.

If asked for her advice from a woman wanting to freeze her eggs, Dr. Darnovsky has this to say: “I'd advise her first to very carefully weigh the risks: the short-term and long-term risks of egg retrieval to herself; and those of the egg freezing process on her potential future child.

“It won't be easy to do, because there's shockingly little data, especially on the last two of the three—despite the fact that women [egg donors] have been undergoing egg retrieval for decades.”

Other arguments against elective egg freezing include:

  • Very high costs, for a procedure you may not need in the end
  • Success rates aren’t high.
  • May give a false sense of security. (There are no guarantees your cryopreserved eggs will get you a baby.)
  • The realities of parenting later in life must be considered.

A Word From Verywell

Elective egg freezing gives women who need to delay childbearing another option. While the technology doesn’t eliminate the realities of time, nor guarantee a baby in the future, it does improve the odds of conception when compared to taking no action for those looking to have a child in their late 30s or 40s.

Egg freezing is generally safe, but as with all medical procedures, there are risks and some long-term unknowns. In extremely rare cases, elective egg freezing could lead to loss of fertility or even death. These are similar to the risks IVF patients and egg donors face.

Before you decide to freeze your eggs, take your time to fully research your options. Keep in mind that if you don’t freeze your eggs, you do have other possible roads towards parenthood. You may conceive on your own in the future.

If you do face infertility, you can pursue fertility treatments at that time, including IVF. You may need to use an egg donor, or you might consider choosing an embryo donor. This means your child would not be genetically related to you, but may still be biologically related to your partner (if you use an egg donor with his sperm). Adoption, foster care parenting, or remaining childfree are also possibilities.

Sources:

Chavkin, Diana E. MD. HRC Fertility in Los Angeles. Interview July 17, 18, and 19, 2017.

Cobo A1, García-Velasco JA2, Coello A3, Domingo J4, Pellicer A5, Remohí J3. "Oocyte vitrification as an efficient option for elective fertility preservation." Fertil Steril. 2016 Mar;105(3):755-64.e8. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2015.11.027. Epub 2015 Dec 10.

Darnovsky, Marcy Ph.D. Executive Director at the Center for Genetics and Society. Interview: July 13 and 14, 2017.

Doyle JO1, Richter KS2, Lim J2, Stillman RJ2, Graham JR2, Tucker MJ2. “Successful elective and medically indicated oocyte vitrification and warming for autologous in vitro fertilization, with predicted birth probabilities for fertility preservation according to number of cryopreserved oocytes and age at retrieval.” Fertil Steril. 2016 Feb;105(2):459-66.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2015.10.026. Epub 2015 Nov 18.

Mesen TB1, Mersereau JE2, Kane JB3, Steiner AZ2. “Optimal timing for elective egg freezing.” Fertil Steril. 2015 Jun;103(6):1551-6.e1-4. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2015.03.002. Epub 2015 Apr 14.

Mature oocyte cryopreservation: a guideline. The Practice Committees of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

Noyes N1, Porcu E, Borini A. “Over 900 oocyte cryopreservation babies born with no apparent increase in congenital anomalies.” Reprod Biomed Online. 2009 Jun;18(6):769-76.

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