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Stop the clock: the culture and practice of egg freezing by healthy women

Egg freezing allows women to store their oocytes for pregnancies at a later date. It is used traditionally by women faced with health or medical issues that may impact their fertility, such as chemotherapy. But it is also increasingly used by healthy women to extend their reproductive window.

Health

Sociologist Nitzan Zarfaty turned her attention to this trend for her work on TIMEGG, keen to investigate the ethical and social implications of this practice. Her work focused on attitudes to egg freezing among women and experts in Germany and Israel. As the practice is still in its infancy, there is no consistent data on the number of women choosing to freeze their eggs. In Germany, 22 women underwent the procedure in 2012, and more than 100 did so in the following year – the most recent for which statistics are available. In Israel, over 1 000 women froze their eggs in 2018. The women Zarfaty spoke to fell broadly into three groups. Some German interviewees were not sure if they wanted children, and saw the process as a way to postpone that decision. A second group, including both German and Israeli women, were convinced that they did want children, but were waiting for the right partner. And in Israel, Zarfaty met religious Jewish women using egg freezing as part of long-term family planning, aspiring to have a large number of children. “Women who freeze eggs for social reasons are often portrayed as selfish career women who delay their fertility,” says Zarfaty. “It’s portrayed as a revolutionary action, yet the women who do it have very traditional aspirations.”

Timing is key

In Israel, the average age of women choosing to freeze their eggs has decreased over the years, and in 2016 stood at 37. In Germany, there are no age limits on egg freezing, but Israel restricts the procedure to women between 30 and 41 years of age. This is a key issue, as women are faced with age-related fertility decline and the success rate of IVF is limited in later years. “For women around the age of 35, they need to have 20 eggs frozen in order to have an 80 % chance of one child,” notes Zarfaty. Yet the legal age limitations for freezing eggs and social ideas about the right time for motherhood are informed as much by societal perceptions as by science or biology.

Not an easy option

Social egg freezing is a demanding process, physically and emotionally, and Zarfaty says the diversity of women and their motivations needs to be acknowledged. “Talking to the women themselves, they offer very different perspectives than professionals,” she explains. “I think their contributions are highly important and should be brought to academic research and policy-makers when making decisions that affect women.” The limited success rates, twinned with an abundance of conflicting information and social circumstances around the process of egg freezing, means that more attention should be paid to the advice given to women during the process. Zarfaty aims to publish guidance for medics on handling informed consent in this space and improve the experience of women. This research was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme. “I am so, so grateful for this funding,” adds Zarfaty. “I was able to reach a level of professional maturity, EU funding is a very nurturing environment for doing that.” She summarises her future plans as: “Publications, publications, publications.”

Keywords

TIMEGG, egg, freezing, fertility, Germany, Israel, family, planning, IVF, women

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