A UK fertility expert has said that within ten years, a significant proportion of young British women will be cryopreserving their eggs in order to stave off infertility while delaying motherhood. Dr Simon Fishel, director of the Centre for Assisted Reproduction (CARE) in Nottingham, said at a media briefing at the Royal Institution in London that the structure of society will inevitably lead to women wanting to put off becoming mothers while they establish their careers or wait to find the right partner and, unless society changes, demand for egg freezing will increase.
Dr Fishel believes that as egg freezing techniques become more efficient, demand from women will increase. 'When we get to the stage where egg freezing becomes safe, then there will be a significant proportion of women who will have their eggs frozen at a younger age and pursue the lifestyle they want', he said. He went on to say that he thinks this 'paradigm shift will come probably within ten years, maybe sooner'.
Egg freezing has proved to be successful in a small number of cases, but is less effective than freezing sperm as eggs cells are much larger and contain more water - so when they freeze, ice crystals can form that can damage the cell. Because of the low success rate, egg freezing has so far been used mainly for women undergoing treatments that can affect their fertility. But if success rates increase, more women may opt to freeze their eggs for 'social' reasons. However, Virginia Bolton, consultant clinical embryologist at Guy's Hospital, London, said that people should be careful not to assume that women would do this for purely selfish reasons. 'More and more women', she said, 'are finding themselves in their late thirties and without a partner, not delaying motherhood because of a career. That's when they start to panic and worry about their biological clocks. This is not about whimsical, selfish women who want to have life entirely on their terms'.
In the UK, the first baby to be born from a previously frozen egg was as late as 2002 - having only been made legal in 2000 - and only about 200 such babies have been born so far worldwide. But fertility experts predict that their freezing techniques will get better and better as time goes on. 'When we get to the stage when freezing eggs becomes safe and efficient, there will be a significant proportion of women who are going to have their eggs frozen at a younger age', said Dr Fishel. Last year, for example, Japanese, Danish and US scientists published results of a study that showed vast improvements in the success rate of freezing and then thawing eggs. However, not all fertility experts believe that the procedure is safe in the longer term. Peter Braude, director of the centre for preimplantation genetic diagnosis at Guy's Hospital, London, said that 'we don't really know' the long-term effects of freezing either eggs or embryos.