Egg Freezing: Risks to Women and Children Unknown

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky August 29, 2011
Biopolitical Times
Five miniature babies are sitting in an egg carton. One baby sits outside, looking directly at the camera.


To its credit, the fertility industry’s professional organization – the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) – has said plainly that freezing women’s eggs remains an experimental procedure that should not be “marketed or offered as a means to defer reproductive aging.” To its discredit, ASRM does little to see that even its own members adhere to its conclusion. (If this sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the similar disregard in which fertility clinics hold ASRM guidelines on the number of embryos they should put in women’s wombs, and on the use of embryo screening for sex selection.)

In fact, hundreds of American fertility clinics now offer “social egg freezing,” and there are thousands of online ads promising women they can “extend their fertility” by putting their eggs on ice. This disjuncture is examined in an article in this week’s Nature titled “Growth of egg freezing blurs ‘experimental’ label.

Science writer Alison Motluk points out that chemicals used in the freezing process are toxic to embryos, though no one knows how much the eggs absorb; that there have been no systematic follow-up studies either of children born from frozen eggs (fewer than 2000 worldwide) or of success rates, especially for women in their late thirties who are the primary users; and that the procedure is very expensive. She notes that several other widely used assisted reproduction techniques, including pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and injecting sperm directly into eggs, were also rushed from lab to patients with next to nothing in the way of animal studies or clinical trials.

Ironically, proponents of social egg freezing offer this record of untested techniques as an argument in favor of removing the procedure’s experimental label. Though the commercial throttle is already wide open, these promoters are probably right in thinking that ASRM’s designation dissuades some women, dampening the growth of what is clearly a lucrative new market for the fertility industry. In an April article in Vogue, fertility doctor Geoffrey Sher, an active and early proponent of egg freezing, says that there “is already the potential for eight times the demand for egg freezing as there is for IVF procedures, just based on population numbers.” Sher and others believe that women should be encouraged to undergo the procedure in their late 20s or early 30s, when their eggs are higher quality.

Though the tone of the recent Nature article is more sober than that of many media accounts, neither it nor the other media stories published over the past several months – the Vogue piece, coverage by National Public Radio, and a first-person account on Huffington Post – even mention the non-trivial short-term risks (side effects ranging from mild to – rarely – life-threatening, with plenty of debilitating territory in between) and still uncertain long-term risks of egg retrieval for women.

In most of the media coverage, the take-away message is that egg freezing is an unproblematic boon. NPR’s article, for example, carries the conclusive title, “Egg Freezing Puts The Biological Clock On Hold” and reports that fertility doctors “envision a time when society considers freezing eggs an act not of desperation but of empowerment.” The Vogue piece declares, “Stopping the biological clock through egg freezing has long been the ultimate feminist fantasy.”

There have indeed been, and probably still are, some feminists who fantasize thus. The most notorious is Shulamith Firestone, who back in 1970 envisioned gender equality enabled by artificial wombs. Myself, I’ll forgo the fantasy techno-fixes. Give me the kind of feminism that assesses the real-world effects of a practice like egg freezing – as do, for example, Our Bodies Ourselves and the National Women’s Health Network.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: