Diana Hayden predictably made headlines last week when she announced that her baby girl came from an egg she had frozen eight years ago.
The 42-year-old actress and former Miss World froze her eggs so she could have a baby at a later date, without having to worry about her declining fertility.
For Hayden, freezing her eggs was a lifestyle choice – done not out of a medical necessity, but because it liberated her from the tyranny of her biological clock. It also liberated her from the pressure to have a child by a certain age, lest her fertility nosedived and she were left childless forever.
Looked at from that standpoint, egg freezing seems to be as revolutionary and empowering for women as the pill. A growing number of women all over the world are eyeing this reproductive technology because it seems to give them unprecedented control over their biology.
It seems to allow them to defy time, to hit the pause button on childbearing while they pursue a fast-track career, or figure out with whom they want to start a family.
In 2014, egg freezing received a big global corporate thumbs up too. Apple and Facebook announced that they would allow women employees to claim the cost of egg freezing as part of their health benefits. Others may follow suit, nudging still more women towards this procedure.
In the US, fertility clinics sponsor egg freezing cocktail parties where young women are encouraged to go for the technology so they can postpone childbearing. It’s already a big business (the entire process costs thousands of dollars) in the West, and looks to be getting bigger.
Is Elective Freezing a Good Idea?
Here in India, going by the conversation in elite drawing rooms now, Hayden may have done for egg freezing what Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan did for surrogacy.
In 2011, Aamir Khan and his wife Kiran Rao had a baby boy through surrogacy. Shah Rukh and his wife Gauri Khan did the same in 2013, although they already had two healthy children, thereby turning surrogacy almost into a style statement.
Though surrogacy flourishes in this country because it’s the last resort for infertile couples, it is more than likely that post Hayden’s celebrity endorsement, as it were, legions of single, affluent young Indian women will choose to freeze their eggs till they’re ready for motherhood. Or till Mr Right comes along.
But here’s the thing. Elective egg freezing is not quite the reproductive magic bullet it is often cracked up to be. This is one insurance policy (against childlessness) you may not always be able to claim successfully.
Chances of Live Birth are Low
We do of course live in a brave new world teeming with an array of assisted reproductive techniques that redefines the boundaries of what’s “normal” when it comes to childbearing. When the first test tube baby was born in 1978, there were many apprehensions, not to speak of moral and ethical questions.
Today, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), where an egg is fertilised with the sperm in the laboratory and then placed in the mother’s womb, is almost as routine as a Caesarian Section, or a coronary bypass.
In India, despite the lack of adequate regulatory oversight, the whole gamut of assisted reproductive technologies involving surrogates, donor sperm, or donor eggs, is a thriving sector that gives hope and babies to many.
However, the problem with freezing eggs to be used years later is that its success rate is fairly low. The technology has been around for more than 20 years, mainly to preserve the eggs of cancer patients whose fertility was at risk from chemotherapy.
However, even with the growing popularity of elective egg freezing, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the chance of a live birth from a frozen egg is no more than 2-12 percent. To up the chances of success, multiple eggs need to be harvested and frozen.
The procedure is not simple either. The woman is injected with hormones for a week or more to stimulate her ovaries to produce eggs. These eggs are retrieved under anaesthesia and then flash-frozen by a process called vitrification. When she is ready to have a baby, the eggs are thawed, fertilised and the process of IVF is followed.
A Practical Choice?
Though some fertility experts insist that the success rate from frozen eggs is no less than that from IVF, the point is that when you finally decide to cash out your fixed deposit of eggs post the age 40 or 45, you probably have no other eggs to fall back on.
If the frozen eggs are inferior or exhibit chromosomal defects, or have not survived the process of freezing and thawing, you have probably lost your chance to have one more shot at making a baby.
Besides, even if a woman has frozen her eggs in her 20s or 30s, it could be difficult to carry a child to term in her 40s, as older mothers run the risk of a variety of complications during pregnancy.
Essentially, taking a rain check on having a baby by freezing one’s eggs is high on hope, but somewhat low on delivery. Still, that hope, and the possibility that you may not have to sacrifice your career on the altar of motherhood and vice versa, is exhilarating.
And who knows, as technology improves further, having babies from eggs frozen 10 to 15 years ago may yet become a walk in the park.
(Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.)
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