But what if it were possible to prevent eggs from aging, to keep them in suspended animation until a woman was ready to use them? A 47-year-old woman could be her own egg donor—a gift from her 30-year-old self. She could preserve her ability to have a child with her own genetic material—and her future husband’s. By freezing eggs instead of embryos, a woman eliminates the need to have a partner, or at least a sperm donor, before taking action. And once frozen, an egg can theoretically last forever.
The trouble is that eggs are more difficult to freeze than sperm or embryos. Because they are large cells filled with water, eggs are particularly vulnerable to the formation of ice crystals. Researchers have tinkered with the formula for decades: varying the concentration of cryoprotectant, the length of time an egg is exposed to it, the speed at which the egg is frozen and thawed. There were some successes, but none that could be duplicated consistently. Over the past twenty years, there have been only about 150 births from frozen eggs worldwide.
That number, however, might be about to explode. In June, pioneering Italian endocrinologist Eleanora Porcu announced a dramatic success in the largest egg-freezing study to date. With a slow-freezing method that takes the temperature of the egg down a couple of degrees a second and a new recipe for cryoprotectant solution that included just the right amount of sugar, Porcu achieved 85 pregnancies (and 70 births) out of 500 IVF cycles. It may sound like a low number, but a 17 percent pregnancy rate is actually close to the success rate with frozen embryos, a much more mainstream practice. Porcu’s method has the potential to change the fertility world.
Here in New York, one doctor was watching Porcu’s study closely. Nicole Noyes, director of reproductive surgery at New York University, had traveled to Porcu’s lab in Bologna last year to see the process for herself. Noyes returned to NYU, and with her colleague Dr. Jamie Grifo, she began a small clinical trial of her own. Seven infertility patients allowed NYU to freeze their eggs, and then thaw, fertilize, and implant them a month later. Four of the women got pregnant, though one miscarried twice. “We brought it back, and it worked immediately,” says Noyes. “If you follow every step perfectly, it’s beautiful.” On July 4, NYU announced the birth of a seven-pound-thirteen-ounce baby girl—and the birth of its Egg Freezing Program, one of the first two clinics in Manhattan to offer the procedure to the general public.
“After what I saw in the small number of cases who are infertility patients to boot?” says Noyes. “I’m a total believer.”
But not every fertility specialist shares the faith. Despite the recent successes in Italy, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has labeled egg freezing “experimental” and strongly recommended that it be reserved for cancer patients whose fertility is in immediate jeopardy, not offered commercially to healthy women. Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd on Capitol Hill in June, infertility guru Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell, called the promise of egg freezing “misleading” and said, “The chance for success with this procedure is exceedingly low.”
“What gets difficult in medical ethics,” says Dr. Mark Sauer, chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology at Columbia Presbyterian, “is, what do you charge women for a promise?”
Egg freezing is currently a very expensive promise—or, more accurately, a bet. It costs $10,000 to $15,000 to harvest and freeze one batch, then about $500 annually for storage. And those costs are before spending thousands on an in vitro fertilization cycle to use the eggs down the road. Of course, many women would be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars if it meant that they were guaranteed to be able to have their own biological children in their forties or later. But NYU stops far short of a guarantee.
“The biggest risk is counting on this working and having it not,” cautions Grifo, co-director of the NYU program with Noyes. “People can look at it as a little bit of an insurance policy, but if they see it as ‘the Answer,’ and the way to avoid meeting Mr. Right or deciding when to have kids, they could be disappointed in the end.”
Egg freezing is decidedly a luxury product. The women who are beginning to line up for the new procedure are the overachievers, the aspiring law-firm partners, the ambitious actresses, the medical-school residents. These are women who are acutely aware of feminism’s cruel catch: the narrow fertility window that’s been narrowed even further through years of schooling, serial dating, and career advancement. They are boxed in by mixed messages: 40 is the new 30! But be sure to have your children before you turn 35 . . .