Beyond Today is a BBC Radio 4 podcast series that aims to engage young people in current news topics. Harriet Noble, one of the show's producers, tackles fertility in this 22-minute programme after pondering whether she should pay to freeze her eggs.
News headlines reporting an increase in women freezing their eggs for social rather than medical reasons have Noble concerned. She worries that some people may feel pressured into it. However, the price tag for the procedure is hefty – starting at £7,000. High-profile technology companies in the US are also offering egg freezing in employee benefit packages but there is less evidence that UK companies are following suit.
The programme largely involves a discussion between Noble and the BBC News's global health correspondent, Smitha Mudasad, who begin by exploring whether it is worth the cost.
Mudasad gives a brief overview of the egg freezing and the IVF process, which is a little confusing in places. Current UK law allows eggs (and embryos) to be frozen for up to ten years – not two, as stated by Mudasad. I would have expected to hear a little more discussion of the ramifications of this restriction.
If a woman has her eggs frozen in her early twenties, for example, this law means that the eggs may have to be destroyed before she wants to use them, perhaps in her late thirties or early forties. This would mean she might want to go through the procedure again later in life when her fertility is in decline – so there would be less chance of harvesting good quality eggs – and adding further cost.
It is particularly striking how shocked Noble is to learn the very low success rate of frozen eggs resulting in live births (18 percent). For other women considering going through the process, this podcast may be an eye-opener.
We then hear an extraordinary interview with a woman, Ali. After having 27 eggs frozen at the age of 40, she has had twins through IVF, aged 46. For me, this is the most intriguing part of the show. It offers a compelling argument for egg freezing to be made available to everyone, not just those who can afford it.
Ali's experience is exceptional on many levels and her account is worth a listen. However, her story is such a positive one it risks offering false hope of success. She had private funds available to pay for egg freezing and IVF, which is not representative of the situation many younger listeners are in right now. It would have been interesting to find out how much she had spent in total to give listeners an insight into how costs can stack up.
Ali's parting advice to listeners is to have a health check around the age of 30 if they feel having a family is important. This is sound advice, particularly for people choosing to have children later in life or those who have not yet found a partner to start a family.
The podcast chat inevitably moves onto who should foot the bill for egg freezing and health checks, if exclusivity is to be avoided. Mudasad chooses her words carefully here. She highlights viewpoints that could be considered contentious, such as regarding egg freezing as a 'life-saving' treatment deserving NHS funding.
Unfortunately, this leads to a see-sawing of negative and positive arguments that are inconclusive. While this is a good introduction to current discourses, the length of the programme restricts a deeper debate on any of the issues raised. Their discussion serves as an overview of current thinking rather than a granular approach.
Noble's biggest 'takeaways' at the end of the show underline this dilemma. She acknowledges that conversations about fertility need to happen among young people at an earlier stage in life. She concludes if egg freezing were free, she might consider it in five years' time (she is currently 30) but, right now, she cannot afford it. Despite this, the question of whether egg freezing should be free remains unanswered.
This podcast is a good toe-dip in the water for anyone considering social egg freezing for the first time. However, I would also recommend exploring other first-account stories online to form a more informed view of how, why and if egg freezing should be publicly funded. Sites such as Eggsperience and The Fertility Podcast are also great resources.
Should egg freezing be free? is available on BBC Radio 4.