It was the news Alice Giddings did not want to hear.
The results of the diagnostic surgery confirmed her worst fears – she had endometriosis: a painful long-term condition where womb lining can be found growing in the fallopian tubes, ovaries and other areas of the body.
It took a second for the news to sink in.
Although Alice, who works on Metro’s Lifestyle desk, wanted to take some time to consider her next steps, her doctor had other ideas, deciding to immediately issue a stark warning.
‘He told me I should start trying for a baby now,’ she remembers. ‘He said I have a lower chance of conceiving because I have endo, and zero chance if I waited until I was 30.
‘It shocked me. I’m only 23, having a baby isn’t something I would consider right now. I left the appointment in tears.’
After some consoling from her mother, who also works as a healthcare practitioner, Alice saw another doctor for a second opinion. Instead of urging her to start a family, he gently encouraged her to consider freezing her eggs.
Alice spent a few weeks glued to her laptop, scouring forums and comparing clinics, and decided she wanted to go ahead with the procedure. She has booked in to start her fertility journey over the next year.
Alice is one of a rapidly rising number of women who have decided to freeze their eggs in the hope of maximising their chances to have a baby.
The technology, called vitrification, has been available in the UK for over a decade, and has become increasingly popular in more recent years: egg freezing is thought to be the fastest growing form of fertility treatment in the UK.
Taking around two to three weeks for each cycle to be completed, egg freezing is made up of multiple components with participants taking synthetic hormones to stimulate their ovaries into creating more eggs, which are then extracted from the vagina under sedation, and then frozen.
It’s a costly procedure – on average, one cycle costs £3,350 (though with additional costs for medication and storage this number is often far higher). Even so, women are heading to clinics in their droves. A record high of more than 1,500 egg freezing cycles were completed in 2019 — a substantial increase from just 148 in 2010 – and the pandemic has been thought to propel the number of women looking to put pregnancy on pause even further.
For Alice, choosing to have her eggs frozen feels like ‘a last resort’.
‘It’s like an insurance policy for me, to put my mind at rest and to preserve that chance,’ she explains.
But despite the soaring popularity and hefty price tag, the chances of egg freezing resulting in a baby are worryingly low.
A study conducted by the University College London in 2019 observed women who had their eggs frozen at two of the capital’s largest fertility clinics. In the ten year timeframe, a total of 129 women – about one fifth of the study’s sample size – had returned to their respective clinic to have their eggs fertilised. Of these 129 women, only 20% managed to become mothers with their frozen eggs.
For Zeynep Gurtin, who led the study, anyone who believes that egg freezing should be seen as an insurance policy is hugely mistaken. Instead, she likens the procedure to ‘buying a lottery ticket.’
‘The science behind egg freezing is still fairly new,’ Gurtin explains to Metro. ‘By the very nature of the procedure, we’re not going to get exact success rates for conception just yet, as that data is still being collated.
‘In terms of what the cap of this success rate of this technology might be, we can look at IVF. Success rates hover between 30-35% for a live birth. Even if egg freezing succeeded 1/3 of the time, the idea of marketing it as a “failsafe” insurance policy raises women’s hopes in an unreasonable fashion about the extent they can rely on this technology to become a mother.’
The commercial aspect of egg freezing is also cause of concern for Gurtin. Doing it for social reasons (ie in the name of safeguarding rather than necessity) is not funded by the NHS, meaning procedures are funded by prospective parents. The competitive nature of private healthcare means some clinics offer giveaways and gimmicks to get women through the door: free consultations, reduced egg rent and even prosecco evenings have all been dangled as incentives (and that’s not including the companies that offer to pay for it as part of a ‘fertility benefit’ package.)
Gurtin understands the commercial need for a clinic to try and maximise their client base, but expresses concern about how an invasive and emotionally taxing medical procedure is being marketed as a fun lifestyle choice.
She also points towards the quality of information many clinics are offering to her clients. An analysis she conducted of 15 fertility clinics found many were giving biased results: overstating benefits, downplaying risks and even in some cases, minimizing costs by as much as one third.
‘It’s an egregious form of misleading,’ Gurtin explains. ‘Women are stressed enough when trying to navigate their fertility. They deserve clear, comprehensive, accurate and honest information from the outset.’
It’s something Amna Mizrah* certainly agrees with. The 35-year-old comes from a large, traditional Muslim family and was longing to start her own. After paving a successful career in HR, she had earned enough money to pay for egg freezing in 2021.
Having shelled out £10,000 to pay for two cycles at a London clinic, she felt excited to start her fertility journey – but was soon left unimpressed by the treatment she received.
‘After my initial consultation, they asked me if I had any questions, but I knew so little about the procedure, I wasn’t sure what to ask,’ Amna explains. ‘I wanted the nurse would walk me through my treatment a little more – but instead, she just made me watch a video to show me how to inject myself. The bedside manner was not there. It felt like I was just being farmed through.’
Paying an additional £1600 for medication, a cost she previously thought was included in her clinic fees, Amna couldn’t help but compare her experience to that of her friend, who was going through IVF on the NHS at the same time.
‘We would FaceTime after appointments,’ she recalls. ‘My friend would tell me about how the receptionist knew her name, how she had the same nurses and consultant throughout. I had none of that. My experience was very cold and clinical. I don’t even know the name of the doctor who performed my extraction – he didn’t introduce himself to me.’
It was the extraction process that Amna found particularly difficult. Waking up groggy from the procedure, she took herself to the loo and was stunned to find thick, deep-coloured blood between her legs. Having been pumped so full of hormones needed to stimulate ovary activity, Amna psychologically felt pregnant. Seeing the blood elicited a deeply emotional response.
‘I felt as if I miscarried,’ she says quietly. ‘I was so deeply distressed, I had to ring a friend to pick me up. The next few weeks were a blur. I was in a lot of pain, and I felt I’d abused my body.’
Amna’s first cycle saw her produce four eggs – lower than the 20 eggs usually recommended to ensure the maximum chance of conception.
‘There was a sense of guilt,’ Amna continues. ‘I felt ashamed of those four eggs. I don’t even care about them.
‘That clinic didn’t give a s**t about me. They just saw me as an invoice.’
Amna raised a complaint to the clinic about her treatment. While the complaint was dismissed, the clinic did refund Amna £5000 as she opted to pull out of her second cycle of egg freezing.
Lots of women are doing this on their own, so the support needs to be there.
She was also offered one counselling session, which she declined, owing her psychological recovery to a therapist she found herself.
‘It’s been difficult seeing friends starting families, but after this, I don’t think I want to have children anymore,’ Amna says.
‘I support women having the option to freeze their eggs, but I think clinics need to make sure they’re comfortable and safe. Lots of women who are going through this procedure are doing this on their own, so the support needs to be there.’
Studies conducted by the Centre for Reproduction Research at De Montfort University have found that clinics need to work harder to ensure women going through the process solo feel fully informed.
‘Our research has found that clinics don’t do enough to distinguish between couples going through IVF and a single woman freezing her eggs,’ explains medical sociology professor Nicky Hudson. ‘Women have suggested better support like suggesting specific clinic times for women who are doing social egg freezing as opposed to IVF.
‘Offering more time to women having consultations on their own so they can digest information better, and ask questions without judgment, would also help.
‘While some clinics do offer counselling after their cycle is complete, our evidence have also pointed towards a need for a more comprehensive counselling package that can be taken at any time throughout the egg freezing procedure would help women in this circumstance.’
Additional counselling and more help with the process is something that Natalie feels would have benefited her.
The 30-year-old opted to freeze her eggs after she discovered she had low levels of AMH – a hormone essential in developing a foetus’s sex organs.
Natalie, who was travelling in Australia at the time, decided to freeze her eggs abroad to avoid the extortionate UK prices. She found a clinic in Greece that charged around £4000 all in – significantly cheaper than the prices offered at home.
‘I had to give myself a crash course all about egg freezing as I knew nothing,’ Natalie explains. ‘It was hard to find information online as so much was geared towards couples trying to conceive. I had to turn to Reddit forums.’
While Natalie says the clinic in Greece made it plain that freezing her eggs did not necessarily guarantee a baby, they gave little to no warning about the severity of the hormonal side effects she may face, explaining it away as one or two days inconvenience.
Egg freezing: the facts
For clear, unbiased and the most up-to-date information about egg freezing and fertility, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority should be your first port of call.
Clare Ettinghausen, HFEA Director of Strategy & Corporate Affairs, said: ‘More women than ever are choosing to freeze their eggs with over 2,000 treatment cycles a year in the UK today.
‘It’s important that women thinking about freezing their eggs understand that it does not guarantee a baby in the future and as fertility decreases in the mid-30s, fertility clinics must advise patients of the likelihood of success of freezing eggs after that.
‘Women wondering whether egg freezing is the right choice for them can also find impartial information about that, as well as clinic success rates, on the HFEA website.’
Their most recent report puts the birth rate for patients aged 18-34 using their own frozen eggs at 33%. This drops to 5% for patients aged 43-50.
‘I was not prepared,’ she says. ‘I had migraines for about two months. I had painful, irregular periods, break outs and insomnia. At one point, the pain was so bad, I had to call 111.
‘I’m fit and healthy, but it took me months to recover. I decided to cancel my second cycle as I just didn’t want to put my body through that again – it was horrible. My eggs are still frozen in Greece.’
Alongside the hormonal side effects, it was the seismic emotional impact following the procedure that Natalie found difficult.
‘Egg freezing made me realise I didn’t necessarily want children anymore,’ she says. ‘It also was a major contributing factor to my break-up with my boyfriend. The procedure forced me to comprehend my future and what I could be dealing with.
‘This entirely changed my life. If I could turn back the clock, I’d do it just to live in blissful ignorance a little longer.’
Nicky Hudson argues that while a better overall knowledge of fertility, being instilled at an early age, is important, greater societal change needs to be implemented to empower women when weighing up these difficult decisions.
‘Women who freeze their eggs are still seen as “to blame”, there’s this idea that you’ve left it too late, you prioritised your career – when actually, there are a lot of different reasons why women freeze their eggs,’ she explains.
‘There’s great pressure on young women who feel they need to conceive by 35 or their fertility falls off a cliff, but that’s such an oversimplification of reality and doesn’t cater for individual and social factors.
‘The fact is we can educate people on fertility, but if women can’t get adequate, affordable childcare, housing or secure employment, they may feel like they have no choice but to consider egg freezing and put off parenthood without knowing the full facts.’
*Names have been changed.
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