Some have dubbed it the fertility denial complex. Women are increasingly waiting until their late 30s or early 40s for their first try at having a baby. And with fertility typically declining after age 35, many couples encounter difficulty conceiving.
Some turn to the growing fertility industry and its costly treatments such as in vitro fertilization. The Canadian Assisted Reproduction Technologies Registry shows that since 2002 more than 65,000 women have undergone some type of assisted reproductive treatment, which commonly costs around $10,000.
On the horizon is an approach that, at least in theory, could pre-emptively address infertility. Traditionally, clinics offered only egg freezing, whereby a woman has her eggs extracted and preserved for later use, to those about to undergo cancer treatment that might render them infertile. But with recent improvements in freezing technology, “social egg freezing”—preserving the eggs of a healthy woman so she can pursue a career or find a partner—is catching on.
Last March, Canada’s Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study showing that 16 of 20 assisted reproductive technology clinics surveyed (Canada has 28 in total), do some form of egg freezing, and 45% explicitly offer social egg freezing. Dr. Sonya Kashyap, co-director of B.C.’s Genesis Fertility Centre, says two to five patients ask about social egg freezing per week. Her clinic has yet to even offer it.
The treatment is controversial insofar as success rates are unknown. Because it’s been available for just five years or so, few healthy women have unfrozen their eggs and tried to conceive. Nevertheless, in October, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine deemed egg freezing an experimental process no longer. The Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society (CFAS), so far mum on the subject, is expected to follow suit.
CFAS president Dr. Mathias Gysler says he doesn’t see social egg freezing, which typically costs between $5,000 and $10,000, becoming a “huge business opportunity for individual clinics,” but points out it could be good for society generally. “Any offspring is good for the economy. [Recent] data from the U.S. shows virtually no children were born to women above a certain corporate level,” he says. “We have to make jobs more child-friendly or offer women alternatives, through health care, to preserve their oocytes [eggs].”
Gysler says too many women ask about this and other procedures “at the tail end of their reproductive years,” when their eggs are already too old. He believes women should be informed of reproductive realities early on, perhaps by their doctors. “Awareness needs to start when kids are entering university or starting careers.”
In the absence of government interference or opposition on ethical grounds, social egg freezing is likely to become more mainstream. Women, and maybe society overall, will view fertility preservation as a valid investment or form of insurance.