By Ronnie Cohen
(Reuters Health) – For the past four years, since Facebook and Apple began paying for employees to freeze their eggs to delay childbirth, healthy women are increasingly trying to slow their biological clocks by banking their oocytes, or eggs.
But in a new study of more than 200 women who had their eggs removed and frozen as a form of counter-infertility insurance, nearly half expressed regret.
“While most women expressed positive reactions of enhanced reproductive options after freezing eggs, we were surprised to discover that for a group of women it wasn’t so simple,” said lead author Dr. Eleni Greenwood, a reproductive endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “Some even frankly regretted their choice.”
Greenwood and her colleagues invited women who had their oocytes surgically removed and frozen at UCSF from 2012 until 2016 to fill out email surveys. All underwent the procedure because they elected to delay childbearing rather than because of infertility or a cancer diagnosis.
The participants ranged in age from 27 to 44. Most were white, 78 percent had graduate or professional degrees, and 68 percent earned more than $100,000 a year.
Nearly a quarter worked for companies that paid for at least part of the procedure. It costs $10,000 to $20,000, and storage fees can be as high as $1,000 a year.
The vast majority, or 89 percent, of the 201 women who responded to the survey said they expected to be happy they froze eggs, even if they never used them.
But 49 percent revealed feeling some regret about their decision to undergo the procedure. Of those, about two-thirds reported mild regret and the rest reported moderate to severe regret.
The survey did not ask women to explain the reasons for their regret.
Women who choose to freeze their eggs undergo 10 days of injections of hormones to stimulate their ovaries and as many as six ultrasounds to monitor oocyte development. When the eggs look mature, the patient is anesthetized, and a doctor passes a needle through the vaginal wall to retrieve the eggs.
“Women seem to be suggesting to us through this data that they needed more emotional support,” senior author Dr. Heather Huddleston said in a phone interview.
“We need to do a better job of educating women as they go through the process emotionally,” said Huddleston, a reproductive endocrinologist and UCSF professor.
In fact, 13 of the women, who were between the ages of 34 and 40, estimated their likelihood of having a baby with their banked eggs at 100 percent – a highly inflated estimate. The authors called the expectations “unrealistic.”
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Kara Goldman of New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City expressed alarm over the exaggerated expectations, which “could lead to unintended childlessness with devastating consequences.”
There is no data on the efficacy of egg freezing in healthy women, a 2013 report said. But a separate large study that year of women who were having trouble conceiving found, for example, that the probability of a live birth for a 30-year-old woman who has two to six frozen eggs ranges from about 9 percent to 24 percent.
In 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine stopped considering egg freezing an “experimental” procedure for infertile women or women diagnosed with cancer. But it warned: “Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing.”
Rene Almeling, a sociology professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, praised the new study for being one of the first to consider egg-freezing patients’ experiences.
Almeling, who was not involved with the current research, has called attention to the short-term dangers of egg freezing – health problems associated with the injected drugs and the surgery. She has joined other women’s health advocates in calling for studies to examine potential long-term problems.
Although the first so-called test-tube baby is about to turn 40, no longitudinal studies have been done on assisted-reproduction technologies, she said.
“Without the rigorous scientific based evidence you can’t really say, yes, it’s safe or no, it’s not safe,” she said. “If that were communicated, there would be fewer women willing to throw their eggs into the egg freezer.”