Freezing eggs to delay starting a family?

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New research from Belgium and the U.K. suggests that women may increasingly be considering freezing their eggs as a way to prolong fertility as they pursue a career — or find the right romantic partner. A survey of nearly 200 female students found that half of those pursuing degrees in sports or education would consider freezing their eggs to give them the option to delay starting a family, while more than 8 out of 10 women pursuing a medical degree said that they would do so. Meanwhile, a tiny study in Belgium (which included only 15 women in their late 30s) found that half of those interviewed said they’d consider freezing their eggs to take the pressure off the hunt to find the right partner.

Both sets of findings are being presented this week at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Rome. Dr. Srilatha Gorthi, a research fellow at the Leeds Centre for Reproductive Medicine who led the U.K. study, said that more research into women’s attitudes about egg preservation is important as advances in technology have made the technique more broadly available.

Previously, egg freezing was limited to women battling cancer who could face infertility as a side effect of chemotherapy treatments. Though egg preservation can have its risks — bleeding, infection, overstimulation of the ovaries and even, the very small risk of impaired natural fertility — for many women it may present a way to keep their options open, and delay motherhood until they are ready.

In a statement about the findings, Gorthi explained:

“There has been a vogue for offering freezing for social reasons to women, especially those embarking on their careers, or those who haven’t found their Prince Charming, as a kind of insurance policy for later life. Research has proven that young eggs have a better genetic competency than older ones, and the chance of egg freezing working also declines with age. While the best results are likely to be in those under 30 years old, in reality it is predominantly women in their late thirties who are requesting egg freezing.”

In the Belgian study, Dr. Julie Nekkebroeck, a psychologist at the Centre for Reproductive Medicine at UZ Brussel, interviewed 15 highly educated and financially secure women in their late 30s who were considering egg freezing. The women found out about the possibility of egg freezing online, and half said they were pursuing egg preservation because they had not yet found the person they wanted to start a family with. One third of the women said they wanted to freeze their eggs as insurance against infertility, and one quarter said they wanted to freeze their eggs so that when they did meet the right person, the relationship could have time to develop before broaching the subject of starting a family.

In a statement, Nekkebroeck commented:

“Because women have only just gained access to this efficient method of preserving their fertility, we believe that our results will add to the continuing debate about egg freezing for social reasons. Such research seems to indicate that social freezing might be added to the list of preventive measures to be taken against future age-related sub-fertility in women, besides fertility awareness campaigns, but only on the understanding that these women are properly counseled and educated about success rates, fees, treatment procedure etc.”

Egg freezing isn’t the only possibility that fertility specialists are considering for fertility preservation. Specialists such as Dr. Sherman Silber of the Infertility Center of St. Louis have successfully helped several infertile women conceive and bring children into the world using ovarian transplants, and earlier this year the case of a woman who was able to give birth twice after a single ovarian transplant was reported in the journal Human Reproduction. Speaking with TIME in early 2009, Silber said that better technology could mean broader access to fertility preservation — not just for women whose medical travails force them to face infertility, but for those who wish to delay starting a family in order to pursue a career or find the right partner:

“I know there will be people who have big ethical debates about it,” he says, but in many ways, this seems like a logical progression of science. “Women are able to put off childbearing because of these enhanced opportunities in society and often don’t seriously think about having kids until they’re 35 or 40. By then, there’s a 50% chance that they’re infertile,” he says. “Normally, we worry that science is getting way ahead of society,” Silber adds. “This is exactly the opposite of that.”

Click to find out how ovarian transplants have allowed infertile women to conceive.