06 November 2017
ByAppeared in BioNews 925
BBC1, Monday 23 October 2017
Presented by Anna Williamson
As a 33-year-old single woman, who also happens to work in a fertility clinic, babies are unsurprisingly never far from my mind. I spend a lot of time wondering whether I should freeze my eggs. A lot. I am very aware that if I do decide to, the sooner that I do it, the greater the likelihood of success. However, without the guarantee of a future child it still feels like too much of a gamble for my risk-adverse nature.
In an attempt to gain some clarity around this issue I have been seeking out the experiences of other women who have taken the decision to freeze their eggs, or who are considering it. A recent episode of the BBC documentary series Inside Out London has provided me with some food for thought as presenter Anna Williamson investigates why 'record numbers of women are putting their eggs on ice'.
Despite the feature only lasting a brief nine minutes of the programme, the producers have managed to create a comprehensive and engaging overview of the social egg freezing process. Viewers are introduced to three women who are at very different stages of their egg freezing journey.
Natasha Jouhl, a 41-year-old opera singer, is seen undergoing the egg retrieval procedure and describes her frozen eggs as her plan B - a form of insurance should plan A not work. Whereas 32-year-old Sharon Jones is considering freezing her eggs because she believes that doing so will 'buy her time'. At the end of the feature, viewers are introduced to 48-year-old Claire Fenelon who has a three-month-old baby, from an egg frozen nine years previously.
These first-hand accounts are complemented by interviews with the medical practitioners and scientists who are providing egg freezing services in London. Taken together, these diverse perspectives are able to capture the biological, emotional and financial complexities that muddy the decision-making process: to freeze, or not to freeze?
The main objective of the programme seems to be educating the public about what the process of egg freezing entails. The motivation that drives women to freeze their eggs is explored, which predominantly seems to be the absence of a secure relationship – a narrative shared by all three women featured in the programme. The physical process of retrieving and freezing eggs is explained and finally, the viewers are shown how the frozen eggs can be used in the future to potentially create a family.
Williamson does a commendable job throughout the programme of trying to strike a balance between highlighting the positive and the negative aspects of egg freezing. However, possibly due to time constraints, the potential pitfalls of the process are often only superficially examined.
Indeed, one of the main things that struck me about the feature is that both the medical professionals and the women having their eggs frozen seemed to be largely unperturbed by the low success rates and the financial costs of the procedure. The success rates of fertility treatment using frozen eggs is currently around 14 percent, although it is thought that this will increase now that the techniques used to freeze eggs have improved. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to greatly surpass the success rates of standard IVF treatment.
There seems to be a disparity in how women view their chances of becoming a mother in the future using their frozen eggs compared with their actual statistical likelihood of success. It is unclear whether this difference comes from the way in which the egg freezing procedure has been explained to these women or whether there is an element of unwavering belief that they will be the one to beat the odds.
The optimistic language that both Natasha and Sharon use throughout the feature jars with the truly uncertain nature of the procedure. Claire's story of freezing her eggs at 39 and becoming a mother at 48 may be exactly why some women gain a false sense of security about their chance of success using frozen eggs. Yes, the likelihood of having a baby from a frozen egg is low, especially if the eggs were frozen after the age of 35. However, it can happen and the promise that it just might work is incredibly seductive. The influence of these miracle stories may also be strengthened by the fact that there are very few alternative fertility-preservation methods. Sometimes taking a leap of faith seems like the best option.
For me, I'm still undecided about whether I should freeze my eggs or not. What I would like to hear, and what the programme may have benefited from, is the perspective of someone whose egg freezing experience was unsuccessful, someone who had frozen their eggs but did not become pregnant when they opted to use them later in life. The programme hinted at the many points where the treatment process could fail. Natasha’s first attempt at freezing her eggs didn't work because the clinic wasn't able to retrieve any eggs. Out of the 11 eggs that Claire thawed, only one went on to create an embryo that could be used in treatment.
It would be both interesting and useful to know how people feel about social egg freezing when it hasn't worked for them. Do they regret their decision? Do they feel they had sufficient information before embarking on treatment? What would they recommend it to other women thinking about freezing their eggs?
Even without this, the programme is undoubtedly interesting, well made and incredibly easy to watch. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in fertility issues and especially to women who are considering freezing their eggs.