It’s a Wednesday night in Hartford and roughly 20 women are gathered in the back room at Dish Bar & Grill. Holding glasses of wine, they mingle with one another while helping themselves to an appetizing buffet spread.
Ranging in age from twentysomethings to women in their early 40s, they’re laughing, chatting, and if you didn’t know any better, you might think you’d just walked in on a Pampered Chef party.
However instead of discussing measuring spoons, they are talking about ovaries, embryos, and egg-freezing at an informal happy hour sponsored by the Center for Advanced Reproductive Services, an academic affiliate of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
And though there are plenty of smiles and small talk, there’s also an undercurrent of vulnerability and reserve considering the nature of the conversation, and that it’s being had among mostly strangers.
Understandably most of the women there are uncomfortable sharing their personal reasons for coming, but one cites a recent divorce, and another has medical concerns that have prompted her to attend.
While their motives vary, their purpose is the same; to learn more about retaining fertility through egg-freezing. Egg freezing parties are trending now, happening in cities around the country.
“Many women are aware of the biological clock ticking,” said Dr. Andrea DiLuigi, OB/GYN, reproductive endocrinologist, infertility specialist, and a lead physician at the Center for Advanced Reproductive Services in Farmington. “But they aren’t yet ready to have children for social or financial reasons.”
Some of those reasons include not yet having a partner, wanting to focus on schooling, establish a career, or simply not being ready to start a family.
So instead some women, like 29-year-old Rachel Watterson, an embryologist affiliated with The Center, are turning to technology to help preserve their eggs until they are.
“I decided that it was a good choice for me,” she said. “I’m not super-dedicated to the task of settling down right now, so I decided to freeze my eggs. And when I’m ready, I have a backup. It’s like an insurance policy that I hope I never have to use.”
It might be surprising to learn that instead of producing eggs every month, women are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have, and as they age, that reserve diminishes dramatically. In fact, by 35, most women will have lost nearly 95 percent of their eggs and the ones remaining are aging right along with the rest of their bodies. And with each passing year, the viability of those eggs decreases.
“Women cannot produce new eggs as men can make new sperm continuously,” said DiLuigi. “Risks of miscarriage and abnormalities such as Down Syndrome also increase as the age of the egg increases.”
Considering that women between the ages of 30-34 comprise the largest group contributing to the total number of U.S. births, coupled with the fact that in the past four decades the average age of a woman’s first pregnancy jumped from 21 in 1970 to 26 in 2013, it’s apparent that times are changing.
“We know lives are becoming more complicated for reasons like education, career and sometimes even health,” said the Center’s chief operating officer, Paul Verrastro. “Younger women are putting off the decision to have a family until later in life.”
And for some of those women, the longer they wait, the smaller the window of opportunity becomes, which is why egg-freezing is gaining some traction. This medical procedure has been available since 1986.
According to Verrastro, the ideal time to freeze eggs is between 27 to 34 years old, and though they might not be used for five or 10 years, the eggs retain their youthful integrity.
“The freezing of younger eggs can give women a greater chance of achieving a healthy pregnancy when those eggs are used later in life,” said DiLuigi. “For example, if a woman freezes her eggs at 30 and uses them to achieve pregnancy at age 40, her chance of becoming pregnant are those of a 30-year-old.”
That’s pretty significant when you consider that at age 30 you have a 20 percent chance of conceiving each month. At age 35 that number drops to 15 percent, and by age 40, it’s only 5.
No Guarantees, But Hope
In 2012, Kerri Palmer, a Smithfield, R.I., resident, found herself at a crossroads. At age 34, not in a serious relationship and treated for breast cancer, Palmer decided to do what she could to preserve her fertility, and upon referral from a friend, underwent the process at The Center.
“I’m big on no regrets,” she said. “If I didn’t do it, I’d regret it.”
Three years later, she acknowledges that there are no true guarantees when, or if, the time comes for her to use them, that they’ll result in a pregnancy. However, she finds a sense of reassurance knowing that she has options.
From start to finish the whole egg-freezing process lasts about a month. There are preliminary doctor visits, screenings, and then an eight to 10 day period of daily, self-administered, hormone injections to stimulate egg production.
Under anesthesia, the eggs are aspirated from the ovaries and the mature, viable eggs are then frozen in a cryogenic tank until they are ready to be fertilized.
It’s an outpatient procedure that lasts roughly 15 to 20 minutes, said Verrastro, and most women are usually back to work by the next day.
It’s A Gamble
At the egg-freezing happy hour in Hartford earlier this month, attendees had various questions for the speakers from The Center. Some wanted to know how old is too old to harvest eggs. The answer is that it depends on the woman, if she still has viable eggs, and host of other factors.
Others asked about the hormone injections and were reassured that even though they are required three times a day, the needles are small and for the most part, they don’t hurt.
But mostly everyone wanted to know about the cost. Though a limited number of insurance plans cover the procedure and subsequent expenses (women are encouraged to call their providers and check), most don’t and the out-of-pocket is about $5,700 from start to finish.
Additionally, the first year egg storage at the Center for Advanced Reproductive Services lab is free, and after that, it runs $150 quarterly.
For some that might seem like a high price to pay, but for others who are holding off on starting a family for any number of reasons, it’s a welcome new possibility.
And it appears that possibilities are what an increasing number of women are seeking according to Pasquale Patrizio, professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at Yale School of Medicine and director of the Yale Fertility Center and the Fertility Preservation Program in New Haven. Hard numbers documenting how many women are now using this procedure yearly are still difficult to quantify, says Patrizio.
“There has been an increase in women in the last couple of years who want to do this,” he said. “Women can use the technology to protect future chances of pregnancy.”
Though he considers that technology to be remarkable, he also cautions that women who choose to freeze their eggs through ‘elective fertility preservation,’ as Patrizio referred to it, shouldn’t exactly consider it an insurance policy for future pregnancies, but instead an opportunity.
“It’s freezing a chance,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee, and you’re not necessarily ever going to use it, or you’re not sure you’ll have the opportunity to start a family. You may never need it.”