Women turn to egg freezing for numerous reasons. Often it’s medical, but new research suggests it could also have to do with finding the right partner.
Research out of De Montfort University in Leicester, U.K. found that women are partaking in “social egg freezing,” meaning they’re preserving their eggs for non-medical reasons, largely because they don’t want to rush into a relationship just because their biological clock is ticking.
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Dr. Kylie Baldwin, the study’s lead researcher, said that women are using the fertility technology largely to avoid “panic partnering” and having a kid with the wrong person.
“Nearly all of the women in my research were single at the time of freezing their eggs,” Baldwin told Global News.
“Seven had recently come out of long-term relationships which they thought would lead to motherhood only for the relationship to break down, in some circumstances, because their male partner wouldn’t commit to the relationship itself more seriously, or to having children.”
Baldwin, who interviewed 31 heterosexual women primarily from the U.K. and the United States, said that the remaining women who were in relationships decided to freeze their eggs for two primary reasons: their relationships were new, or they were in relationships with men who were giving out signs that they did not want to become fathers, or weren’t yet ready to become fathers, she said.
Women have a limited amount of eggs, and research shows that the quality of those eggs decreases as they age. After the age of 40, a woman’s chance of conceiving drops. This is where egg freezing comes in handy — especially for women in their mid- to late-30s.
In the United States, research shows more women are also partaking in social egg freezing. While there’s little data on how many women in Canada are freezing their eggs for non-medical reasons, Dr. Karen Glass, the director of fertility preservation at Toronto’s CReATe Fertility Clinic, said she’s seeing an uptick.
Glass said women’s social reasons include not having a partner now but wanting to be able to procreate in the future, or deliberately delaying motherhood for their career. Glass said most of the women she sees are between 35 and 40, but has seen women in their early 30s, too. She estimates 95 per cent of her clients are single.
When medical reasons blur with social reasons
Even for single women who freeze their eggs for health reasons, they, too, are starting to consider the social aspects of the procedure. For 25-year-old Tiffany, who wished to only use her first name, a breast cancer diagnosis is what ultimately made her consider motherhood.
Tiffany was told she had breast cancer in February and needed to start chemotherapy before undergoing a bilateral mastectomy. Before her cancer treatment started, she was introduced to the PYNK Program, a privately funded initiative based in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital that serves women under 40. One of PYNK’s areas of focus is fertility and educating young breast cancer patients about their options.
There, Tiffany learned that it was best to freeze her eggs before she underwent chemo, as the therapy would likely affect the quality of her eggs.
“I’m not in a relationship where I’m going to be married, I have zero thought of children right now,” she recalled telling the fertility doctor. “That’s the least of my concern in this moment of time, I said.”
Still, she decided it was better to freeze her eggs than not. She wanted to be able to use them with a future partner and didn’t want to risk further fertility problems. The fact that the Ontario government covers one round of egg retrieval for people who have a medical reason for fertility preservation, like cancer, also influenced her decision.
The procedure also made Tiffany realize she would consider using her eggs as a single mother if she doesn’t have a partner down the road. “If I was financially stable and I really wanted a baby, then I would use them on my own, 100 per cent,” she said.
Freezing eggs as a safety net
Megan Beaton, a nurse who lives in Vancouver, froze her eggs in 2017. The 28-year-old had an ovary removed due to a large cyst when she was 19, and wanted to preserve her eggs as an “option to fall back on” in case she couldn’t conceive naturally in the future. She also has endometriosis, which might affect fertility.
“It wasn’t considered medically necessary for my personal situation — as it may be for someone undergoing chemotherapy — and is considered ‘social egg freezing,'” she said.
Once she decided she wanted to freeze her eggs, the process was relatively quick. “I went to my family doctor, got a referral to one of the fertility clinics in Vancouver, waited a few weeks, then they called me with an appointment for a consultation,” she said.
“I just went from there, and it all happened in a few months.”
If you freeze for social reasons, it’s not covered by governmental health plans. Beaton said the egg retrieval and related hormone shots cost her around $12,000. Clinics also charge an annual egg storage fee, which typically range between $300 and $500. At the clinic where Glass works, the storage fee is $395 a year.
Like Tiffany, Beaton is single. She said initially she only intended on using her eggs if she and a future partner couldn’t conceive naturally, but her thoughts have changed. Should she not find a suitable partner, having a kid alone isn’t out of the question.
“I don’t have a partner now, and I hadn’t really thought before about using my eggs without a partner in the future,” she said. “But now I’m thinking maybe I would, and I could feel very differently in my mid- to late-30s if I don’t have a partner, and I’m not close to having a partner.”
For Beaton, single motherhood would be an option if she was financially stable and felt like she was mentally strong enough to raise a child on her own. “Those are the two things that would make my decision,” she said.
U.K.-based researcher Baldwin said some of the women she interviewed shared similar views. While most of the women preferred the idea of parenting within a committed relationship, two-thirds of those without partners said that they would consider using donor sperm to conceive in the future, should they still be single.
As more women are aware of their fertility options, the conversation around egg freezing is changing, Beaton said, especially among younger women. Friends have started to ask her questions about the process, and are interested in learning more.
“People are going to post-secondary school for longer … and getting their career in line, so they may want to wait until later to have kids. And after 35, the quality of your eggs significantly goes down.”