10 April 2017
ByAppeared in BioNews 896
BBC Radio 4, 17-24 January 2017
Presented by Fi Glover
The contradictions of the burgeoning egg freezing industry are lucidly demonstrated out in The Great Egg Freeze, a radio documentary by journalist Fi Glover. Part of Radio 4's 'Seriously…' strand of 'quirky, curious and seriously interesting documentaries', the programme packs an impressive range of viewpoints into its 31 minutes, presenting the burgeoning 'social egg freezing' market through the eyes of customers, employers, and medical professionals.
Egg freezing is a recent technology which was originally presented to female patients to preserve their eggs before medical treatment such as chemotherapy. The first child born from a frozen egg was in the US in 1997, and the first in the UK in 2001 (see BioNews 99). However, egg freezing is now being offered to prospective mothers to preserve better quality eggs, to be used further in the future.
Glover recalls her own days as almost the quintessential target for so-called modern 'social egg freezing'. She was single, in her early thirties, living in New York City where ‘neuroses, freedom and relentless ambition all combine…', enjoying a great job and great social life, but starting to wonder if 'it was going to just be me and my cats'. Although she rang clinics to ask about egg freezing, peppering them with a journalist's shrewd questions, she decided not to get her eggs frozen. At the time, information was more limited and egg freezing felt 'a bit reckless, like sending my ovaries out into the Wild West on a bareback horse.'
Yet things have changed since then. From 2014, technology company giants like Apple and Facebook began offering egg freezing packages to female employees. Other major companies including Google, Spotify and Salesforce have followed suit. In 2009, 550 women in the US had their eggs frozen. By 2017, this had risen to 7550.
Although none of these companies agreed to go on the air to talk about it, Glover speaks to an 'egg freezing broker', one such new enterprise which has arisen to introduce companies to the perks of egg freezing for employees, who emphasises that egg freezing is marketed as a type of 'insurance'. She speaks to the CEO of Hubble, who could be one of the first UK companies to provide egg freezing options for employees. The CEO confirms that giants like Facebook and Apple have been a significant influence on this plan. Indeed, he agrees that if they had begun research into 'artificial wombs' for men, perhaps Hubble would have gone the same way. 'It's one of those things where we say that as a joke, but in the next 20 years given where technology is shifting, that may not be so ridiculous after all.'
She meets Bridget, the 'poster girl' for egg freezing in the US, and several other women like her who were in their thirties, with careers, and uncertain about when or whether they would start a family. Bridget had set up the first online cryopreservation community and at the time of the programme had had 11 eggs frozen. 'Had I been given the opportunity in my early thirties or even late twenties, it would have taken a huge immense load off that I had these eggs on ice, I could use them when I wanted, and move on with my career, and move on with meeting men when I wanted to.' Yet there is a surprising and poignant update to her experience later in the programme, which reminds us that egg freezing is still essentially IVF, and even if women can set aside eggs for the future, they can also end up setting aside the realities of problems they might face.
Such women bring the personal stories of egg freezing to the fore. Glover also speaks to the representives of the clinics catering to them, such as Professor Geeta Nargund, the medical director of CREATE Fertility. Professor Nargund's opinion is that egg freezing is the second wave of emancipation after the contraceptive pill. 'Nature has created a gender inequality when it comes to infertility,' says Professor Nargund.
Glover questions her on the available evidence for the success rates for egg freezing, which she believes can be easily misinterpreted by prospective customers. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine has published that success rates are above 90 percent for successful egg thaw and implantation. However, the data on resulting live births is not available. The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) says there has been an average of eight live births from frozen eggs, per year, between 2008 - 2013. New egg freezing techniques like vitrification may have improved the likelihood of success, but it is too early to know for certain.
Professor Nargund responds that they use the data which is available now, and the individual circumstances of the woman. 'It seems unfair that the society that creates educational, economical and professional conditions that encourage women to delay motherhood, want to discourage them from using technological solutions to bypass biological inequity, which is early loss of fertility for women.'
The programme is full of interesting and opinionated quotes such as these which sum up the different sides of the arguments. Nor does the documentary come from the stifled air of a studio, as delicate touches of music and sound effects convey the literal journey of Glover's investigation. Far from a collection of dry interviews, instead it presents arguments and opinions like a Venn diagram, highlighting how often the same arguments are shared by different sources. Women are 'empowered', say both the women who have chosen to freeze their eggs, and the egg broker. Women want to focus on their careers, agree both the women and the employers who offer them egg freezing packages as incentives to remain in their workforce.
Glover's narration also neatly captures the contradictions. Although egg freezing is often marketed as 'empowering', are the effects on women's life choices really so one-sided? Is it really such a progressive option for employers, or would women be better supported by better childcare provision at work, for instance? 'There is a kind of trickle-down effect that if big companies start offering this, they create a market, and women actually become quite vulnerable… My fertility shouldn't be governed by someone wanting to make a business out of it,' Glover suggests to Professor Nargund, pointing out that CREATE Fertility's website even calls egg freezing 'The perfect 30th birthday present', which could be helping to create a new financial and social norm.
'The kind of people who are going to do really, really well with egg freezing are those who have loads and loads eggs, and don't have a fertility problem in the first place. I find it difficult to believe that represents most women who are undergoing this procedure. That's the issue,' says another egg freezer, who describes the negatives and 'massive disappointment' of her experience as 'a massive disappointment'.
Glover does not shy away from presenting her own final opinion. Even knowing what she does now, 'The promise that it might just work out fine, a family, a career, happiness ever after, well who turns that down?'
I enjoyed this informative and varied documentary immensely, and would highly recommend it.