Women Are Freezing Their Eggs Because They Don’t Have Committed Partners
Egg freezing is portrayed in popular culture as a reproductive insurance policy for the thirty-something career woman. But the largest ever qualitative study on elective egg freezing just concluded that the vast majority of women who freeze their eggs aren’t doing it because they’re prioritizing their careers, they’re doing it because they don’t have a stable, committed partner.
Dr Marcia Inhorn, an anthropologist from Yale University, presented the findings at the 34th Annual Meeting of European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Barcelona. The results were based on interviews with 150 women from multiple fertility clinics in the US and Israel who elected to freeze their eggs for personal reasons (as opposed to those who do it for medical reasons, for example, in advance of cancer treatment).
“The medical literature and media coverage of oocyte cryopreservation usually suggest that elective egg freezing is being used to defer or delay childbearing among women pursuing education and careers,” said Inhorn. “Our study, however, suggests that the lack of a stable partner is the primary motivation.”
The interviews eventually led the researchers to identify 10 reasons women turn to egg freezing.
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Eighty-five percent of the women in the study were without partners at the time they chose to freeze their eggs. Their decisions reflected six of the common reasons for egg freezing: being single; divorced or divorcing; broken up from a relationship; employed overseas; single mother by choice or circumstance; and career planning. Interestingly, egg freezing for the purposes of career planning or prioritization was the least common of the six, even among women who worked for companies with egg freezing insurance coverage.
The remaining 15% had life partners, and expressed four different life circumstances as their reasons for wanting to freeze their eggs: with a man not ready to have children; in a relationship too new or uncertain; with a partner who refuses to have children; or with a partner with his own multiple partners. “Most of the women had already pursued and completed their educational and career goals,” Inhorn explained, “but by their late 30s had been unable to find a lasting reproductive relationship with a stable partner. This is why they turned to egg freezing.”
Elective egg freezing is one of the fastest growing services in many fertility clinics today. Dr Pasquale Patrizio, a Yale fertility specialist and co-investigator on the study, said that around 5000 egg freezing cycles were performed in the US in 2013, but that 76,000 are predicted in 2018.
“Their choices are to freeze their eggs, hope to find a partner, or decide to become a single mother with donor sperm,” Dr Inhorn said. “But freezing eggs holds out hope for many.”
While the procedure provides women with hope, the question is how reliable or realistic that hope is. In fact, the chances of any one frozen egg leading to a live birth are between 2 and 12%; overall success rates in achieving a live birth after egg freezing are somewhere between 14 to 19%. Those statistics rarely makes it into the marketing materials at IVF clinics.
Furthermore, the factors that influence the success of live birth outcomes are frequently not communicated to women effectively. For example, a woman’s age at the time of retrieval is enormously relevant; the younger the eggs, the more likely they will lead to a live birth. It would be best to freeze eggs when a woman is in her early 20s, but of course, that’s not the age at which many women might turn to egg freezing as a backup plan.
As women increasingly make life choices unencumbered by social expectations or financial dependence, the opportunity to preserve one’s fertility indefinitely may seem like one more marvel of medical science and feminist advancement. It’s tempting to buy into this current fiction. The reality, of course, is more complicated; while egg freezing can provide one avenue towards delaying childbearing, it is by no means a surefire one. For those women who are choosing to freeze their eggs while they wait for Mr or Ms Right — and this study shows just how prevalent that rationale is — it might be helpful to know what the odds are. Reproductive choices are only helpful if they are informed choices.