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Instead of walking down the aisle at age 37 in a fairytale white dress, I decided to get my eggs frozen. Before I went through with the procedure, I had the privilege and opportunity to go to Italy to interview Dr. Eleonora Porcu and Dr. Raffaella Fabbri, the biologist and the clinician who invented egg freezing at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Bologna, in Italy.
When they started working together in the 1980s, they saw the possibility of freezing unfertilized eggs as a way to sidestep a ban on freezing embryos, which the Roman Catholic Church deemed immoral. As the technique improved, so did the success rates for impregnating women with frozen eggs. On my trip, however, I learned that Fabbri and Porcu were at odds. Their debate went straight to the heart of the issues that surround egg freezing and my own intensely emotional decision over whether to do it.
The afternoon I met with Dr. Fabbri, she told me that she supported commercializing their technology to extend fertility. She believed it would be as important to the starting-later generation as the pill had been to my mother’s generation. A few hours later, when I sat down with Dr. Porcu, she said she believed that many U.S. statistics on pregnancies from frozen eggs had been exaggerated in order to lure customers. She thought that egg freezing should be limited to women without alternatives, such as patients with cancer or those who wanted to store eggs instead of embryos for religious reasons. Allowing healthy women the opportunity to freeze their eggs to postpone childbearing, she argued, was harmful to feminism and “means that we’re accepting a mentality of efficiency in which pregnancy and motherhood are marginalized.” She was quite stern. “We’ve demonstrated that we are able to do everything like men. Now we have to do the second revolution, which is not to become dependent on a technology that involves surgical intervention. We have to be free to be pregnant when we are young and fertile.”
“What about a woman who is divorced and still wants a child, or someone like me who hasn’t yet found Mr. Right?” I asked.
“I understand circumstances like yours,” she said. “In your case, it is an additional tool to fight against unfair nature. You want to survive as a fertile woman.” She then explained that if I did go through with it, I must pay attention to my own biology.
“The possibility of freezing and thawing eggs in the late 30s and 40s is low, because many of a woman’s eggs are damaged,” she explained.
“Of course,” she added, “there are also many women over 35 who still have a large-enough ovarian reserve and are therefore younger from a biological perspective.”
I told her that I recently learned that I had eight antral follicles. Antral follicles produce eggs, and their number declines as a woman ages.
“That means you’re biologically young,” she said.
This was the vital piece of information I’d been looking for. I left Italy feeling more convinced that egg freezing was the right choice for me now.
A few days after New Year’s, 2009, I started giving myself the shots to stimulate egg growth. It blended into my morning ritual. I would wake up; make coffee; wash my face and brush my teeth; and then shoot hormones cloned from Chinese hamster ovaries into my belly. The night before my retrieval, a good girlfriend gave me the trigger shot of human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone that told my ovaries to get my eggs ready for release.
One morning in March, I took a cab to NYU. A nurse took my vital signs and then led me to lie down on the surgery table, where I talked briefly with the doctor who would perform the retrieval. The anesthesiologist told me to sleep well, and in what seemed like three seconds, I woke up in the recovery room.
The anesthetic made me feel jittery, so I drank some apple juice while I waited to hear the results. Meanwhile the freezing process was taking place in a lab behind the scenes. My eggs were placed in a portable incubator. An embryologist hunted for the most mature ones, put them in a petri dish filled with cryoprotectant, and then placed them in liquid nitrogen.
I was still drinking apple juice when the embryologist came to report that they had retrieved 35 eggs. Eight were mature. And with that, the adventure was over. I went home feeling tired, a little sore, and not sure whether my choice was a success. Later, my doctor called to say that eight mature eggs was good, though she wished I had a few more just in case I end up wanting a second baby. She suggested I go through another cycle. I couldn’t afford that, I told her, and anyway, I felt as if I should just accept what I had.
“Do you feel less anxious now?” she asked.
I did feel more at peace knowing my younger eggs were preserved in a little test tube in a big metal tank. It seemed surreal, but I also felt as if I’d done everything I could. I didn’t stop thinking about my fertility entirely, but I felt calmer; next time love came my way I wouldn’t feel so rushed.
In hindsight, this was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Three years later, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine declared that egg freezing was safe, effective, and no longer considered an experimental treatment. The rates of pregnancy with frozen eggs were found to be the same as with embryos, and the data also showed that in vitro fertilization cycles conducted with frozen eggs caused no increase in birth defects, developmental disorders, or chromosomal abnormalities. I’m now starting to believe that this is a real route to having a child; we just need to carefully listen to our biological and social clocks when making the decision.