Freeze female eggs? Online tool to help with the decision
Do we want children? For many couples, this question arises sooner or later. One option is to freeze single cells in order to have children at some point in the future. This approach is often touted as a form of “fertility insurance.” It is not clear how successful the procedure will be for individual women, what the costs will be for users, and how success rates vary by age. Therefore, researchers at the University of Melbourne have developed an online tool to provide decision support for people considering egg freezing.
The online tool first provides the facts about egg freezing – how it works, what we know about the results and risks, and how people might feel during and after the procedure. For example, the hormonal treatments that provide the excess eggs for retrieval can cause mood swings, bloating and headaches. There is also a small risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a potentially serious complication that can cause difficulty breathing and, in rare cases, blood clots in the lungs and legs.
Decision support via online tool
The next step is for users to assess potential advantages and disadvantages themselves. One advantage is, for example, that you feel prepared for the future. A disadvantage would be that egg freezing does not guarantee a baby.
These answers are used to create an overall rating that can be classified on a scale. Is the person prone to egg freezing or opposed to it? Users are also given instructions on where to find more information, for example from a family doctor, a fertility specialist or a counselor.
A look at the statistics suggests that such an online tool can be helpful: around 16 percent of women who have their egg cells frozen regret their decision. According to University College London women’s health sociologist Zeynep Gurtin, potential users of the procedure should be aware of four things: the success rates, the risks, the side effects and the costs.
At least the latter point is clear: freezing egg cells is expensive. The hormonal treatments could cost tens of thousands of dollars, plus the egg retrieval and years of cryopreservation fees. In addition, the method itself is not without risks – and the success rate is nebulous.
Freezing egg cells is still “experimental”
While many women have had their eggs frozen, only a fraction have reused them, Gurtin says. That’s partly because the technology is still relatively new – egg freezing was only classified as “experimental” about 10 years ago. People who frozen their eggs five years ago may not be ready to conceive, or may have conceived without them.
Available data suggests that about 21 percent of women who freeze their eggs eventually use them to become mothers. This number also includes women who have their eggs frozen for medical reasons – for example, as a precaution before undergoing chemotherapy, which could damage healthy eggs. If you look at the women who have their eggs frozen for social rather than medical reasons, this number shrinks to 17 percent.
According to one study, the average chance of a baby being born from a frozen egg is 5.9 percent. 6 percent of the volunteers in this study believe there is a 100 percent chance of having a baby after egg freezing.
misinformation is circulating
One cause of this misconception is misinformation. Egg freezing is big business, and fertility clinics have been found to fudge the numbers a bit when describing the success rates of their procedures. In a study published last year, Gurtin and her colleague Emily Tiemann found that clinic websites tend to be persuasive rather than informative.
Fertility clinics tend to emphasize the benefits of egg freezing while downplaying the risks and costs, the two said. After all, the clinics are about doing business. These results mirror those of similar studies from the US and Australia.
It remains to be hoped that the newly developed online tool will bring light into the darkness. The tool is currently being tested in a group of volunteer researchers and is not yet widely available. For future users, however, it has the potential to bring more transparency to the procedure, to provide information about the costs and to eliminate misinformation.
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