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Fertility's frontier

More women are freezing their eggs to increase their chances of conceiving later. But the results are far from certain.

July 18, 2005|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

Last winter, with her boyfriend "dragging his feet" about a commitment and her 36th birthday come and gone, Megan Griswold decided it was time to frankly assess her prospects for having a child.

Within months, the Seattle acupuncturist was on a plane headed for Los Angeles. There, she had several dozen eggs withdrawn from her ovaries and frozen for possible use down the road.

She may never need them -- she could marry in a year or two and become pregnant naturally -- but freezing the eggs has given her peace of mind. "I would like to be a mother, and the anxiety was starting to build," she says.

Although not looking to be a trailblazer, Griswold is among the first wave of women poised to transform female fertility. Until recently, only healthy volunteers in clinical trials or women about to undergo cancer treatment have had eggs removed and frozen for possible future fertilization and implantation.

But as the ability to successfully thaw and use the eggs has grown, so too has the demand for the procedure and doctors' willingness to market it to healthy women. Now women who aren't ready to become mothers, but who want to preserve that option, are signing up to have some of their eggs removed and frozen.

Nationwide, the number of clinics offering egg banking is expected to double this year from the handful of centers that have pioneered the technology. Huntington Reproductive Center in Pasadena, which Griswold used, is one of three egg banks to open in the last few months in California. The others are at USC and Stanford University in Palo Alto. These banks join a few other California infertility clinics that have been offering egg freezing for some time.

The trend has the potential to rewrite the script for young adulthood, persuading women to further defer marriage and motherhood. Female fertility peaks at age 27 and by age 40, the chance of getting pregnant is less than 10%. By freezing their eggs, women can be relatively free of their biological clock's stressful drumbeat.

"I wanted to separate my desire to have kids with my timing for choosing to be with someone," Griswold says. "It has helped relieve the pressure that fertility is clouding your judgment about whether to be with someone. You want to have children with the right person."

The procedure is expensive -- upwards of $10,000 -- and the resulting pregnancy rate thus far has been low. But if that success rate rises, more women probably would be willing to undergo the procedure. Census figures show there are more than 5 million single, childless women in their 30s in the United States.

And they're not the only takers. Extend Fertility, a national company that partners with infertility clinics to offer egg freezing (including the one in Pasadena), says its market survey found that 25% of women seriously interested in egg freezing were married and 13% had children. Divorced women with children who think they may want to have another child someday also are potential clients.

Barbara Bestor recently signed up for egg freezing at USC Fertility after a candid discussion with her gynecologist. A divorced architect with two children, ages 5 and 6, she knows time is running out on her fertility.

Egg freezing "is like an investment in the chance that I might want to have another kid," the 38-year-old Los Angeles woman says. "It's the ultimate feminist solution. You don't have to say, 'I have to have a kid right now.' "


A new science advances

The ability to postpone motherhood in this fashion was made possible by the discovery that the age of a woman's eggs is more important than her biological age. In the last two decades, even post-menopausal women have become pregnant and delivered babies by using donor eggs from much younger women. Those developments created the incentive to preserve a woman's own eggs while they were still young.

But egg freezing -- the scientific term is oocyte cryopreservation -- has been fraught with difficulty. Although sperm and even embryos have proved easy to freeze, the egg is the largest cell in the human body and is water-logged. When frozen, ice crystals form that can destroy the cell. Over the years, researchers have learned that they must dehydrate the eggs before freezing and place them in a special medium. Because the shell of the egg hardens when thawed, sperm must be injected with a needle to fertilize the egg.

These advances have produced between 100 and 200 babies worldwide today (no one keeps official statistics). Most of the births are concentrated at a dozen or so centers.

Because egg freezing is still a new science, however, experts disagree on whether this first generation of clients can depend on the technology's success.

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