September 15, 2011

Fertility Preservation and Egg Freezing for Healthy Women

Freezing eggs for future use (“oocyte cryopreservation”) is an experimental procedure created to help preserve fertility for women undergoing toxic cancer therapies. Research regarding fertility preservation is growing, sparked largely by the increase in survival rates for people with cancer.

Unfortunately the medications used to stimulate egg production carry some health risks, and the high water content of eggs means that egg  freezing is far more difficult and unpredictable than freezing sperm or embryos. The full risks and effectiveness of egg freezing are not clear.

While women about to undergo cancer treatment may be willing to accept these risks, concerns are being raised because some fertility clinics are offering egg freezing as an option for healthy women who wish to delay childbearing.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) has said offering healthy women egg freezing should only be done as part of scientific experiments with oversight from Institutional Review Boards. In a document outlining “essential elements for informed consent” for this procedure, the ASRM outlines the following risks and concerns, among others:

  • Medical risks associated with ovarian stimulation and egg retrieval
  • The high likelihood that women who undergo this procedure before age 35 will never to use the frozen eggs
  • Costs for medications, monitoring, retrieval, storage, and future use
  • The possibility that a facility will close or lose or damage the eggs, and that different facilities may have differing success rates

The organization also raises concern about possible chromosomal or developmental abnormalities in offspring; they say that while these effects have not been demonstrated, the available data is based on a relatively limited number of successful pregnancies from the method.

In contrast to a recent NPR headline, “Egg Freezing Puts The Biological Clock On Hold,” the ASRM has advised, “At the present time, neither ovarian tissue nor oocyte cryopreservation should be marketed or offered as a means to defer reproductive aging.”

Aside from safety and effectiveness concerns, the procedure is currently an option only for those women with considerable disposable income – costs run higher than $10,000 for a round of egg collection, plus annual storage costs.

For further reading, check out this piece at Biopolitical Times, “Oocyte Cryopreservation: The Next Wave of Assisted Reproductive Technology, or Marketing Ploys for Career-oriented Women?” from the National Women’s Health Network, and our web content on egg donation (which requires similar stimulation and egg harvesting procedures).


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