If you could give your future self anything, what would it be? A house? A car? How about something more unspoken, like peace of mind? The quiet reassurance of knowing there’s time to establish a career and find the right partner, before you need to think about having kids? It’s precisely this peace of mind that many young people are increasingly choosing to gift their future selves – by investing in egg freezing.
According to a new report from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFWA), record numbers of women are freezing their eggs. It found a 60 percent increase in egg freezing from 2019 to 2021, which they say is prompted, in part, by the pandemic. Older data shows a rise of 523 percent from 2013 to 2018, as freezing techniques improved. This also follows the American Society for Reproductive Medicine removing the “experimental” label from the process of egg freezing in 2012. Before then, oocyte cryopreservation (the technical term for the process) was developed in the 80s and initially reserved for those with serious medical conditions who wanted the option to have a baby later in life. Now the average age to freeze eggs is 37 in the UK, but as conversations around reproductive ageing and fertility preservation continue to swirl, increasing numbers of young women under the age of 25 are opting to freeze theirs. On TikTok, #EggFreezing has been viewed more than 124 million times, with many young users extolling the virtues of freezing their eggs while in their biological “prime”. Shania Bhopa, a PhD student from Toronto, made a series on the app about her decision to freeze her eggs at 25. “I did it to buy myself time to get closer to my purpose in my professional life,” she says in the video, “so hopefully one day I can be super intentional with my time as a mother.” She wants control, she says, over her entire timeline in order to scale her businesses.
Other young users freezing their eggs talk about “peace of mind”. Melbourne-based comedian Samantha Andrew made a TikTok series discussing her trans partner’s journey with freezing their eggs at the age of 25. Both Bjopa and Andrew’s circumstances vary, but their reasoning shares a commonality: Egg freezing provides something of a pause on the pressure to watch your biological clock.There are also young women who don’t get a choice in freezing their eggs. Khadejah Brooks-Sutherland first noticed changes in her body in the summer of 2022. Angry scores of spots had started to congregate on her face, and her body had started to bloat. Because she was only 22, her GP reasoned that hormonal fluctuations were to be expected, but after eventually referring her to the hospital, Brooks-Sutherland was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer within hours.Exactly one month after her cancer diagnosis, Brooks-Sutherland had her eggs removed. Chemotherapy, which she would soon start, damages egg reserves in women and, in some cases, can render people infertile. They managed to freeze 35 of her eggs – the average is seven to 14 per cycle. “The doctor kept saying, ‘It’s a back-up plan, it’s a back-up plan,’” she tells VICE from her home in Birmingham. “But it all happened so quickly. I was 22, I hadn’t even thought about kids or having a family.”
Lauren Cunningham, a writer from London, learned that she had adenomyosis – a gynaecological condition that enlarges the uterus and causes heavy menstrual bleeding – when she was 23. Her gynaecologist suggested she should have children by the age of 30, which informed her decision to freeze her eggs as an insurance policy for her future self. She was 24 when she decided to freeze them with money she’d saved from her freelance writing jobs.Medical necessity aside, in many ways Gen Z women freezing their eggs makes sense. On average, women lose around 1,000 eggs per month and by the age of 30 have lost 90 percent of their egg supply. In 2019, over one in three patients who were freezing eggs were under 35. “The average age of my egg freezing patients is rapidly declining every year,” fertility expert Dr. Serena Chen confirms to VICE.“The chances of eggs carrying chromosomal abnormalities is dramatically lower in your 20s than it is in your 30s,” she continues. “By the time you’re in your 40s, the vast majority of the eggs you make will yield chromosomally abnormal embryos, so you’re significantly reducing your risks if you freeze them earlier.”The average age to become a first-time mother in the UK has also been increasing since the 70s, and is now at a record peak of 30.9. Freezing eggs while they’re in their “prime” is an act of what doctors refer to as “fertility preservation” – an almost god-like pause in the journey of one’s own reproductive health.
But the procedure of freezing eggs before the age of 25 doesn’t come without risks. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal: “Egg freezing is a process that involves the hormonal stimulation of the ovaries, followed by transvaginal retrieval and subsequent freezing and storage of a woman’s viable eggs.” Patients are required to inject themselves with a hormonal medication of gonadotropins twice a day, with the aim of encouraging follicle growth to stimulate as many eggs as possible. This can lead to overstimulation of the ovaries, otherwise known as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), which occurs in five percent of IVF and egg freezing cycles. “Getting more eggs can put those that are younger at a higher risk of some of the complications of the procedure,” says Chen, noting that those under 25 are particularly at risk of developing OHSS.Cunningham was placed in the highest risk category during her procedure because of her age. “They told me the younger you are and the slimmer you are, the higher the risk you are of overstimulating your ovaries,” she says. “I had to do more tests to make sure that everything was okay.” For the duration of her egg retrieval process, Cunningham had scans and a urine test once every two days and two blood tests a week. Two days before her own egg removal operation, Brooks-Sutherland was told that there were “complications” with her ovaries. She too had overstimulated her ovaries and, as a result, was rushed to surgery early as her body had gone into “overdrive”.
The procedure also carries mental health risks as a by-product of the influx of hormones it requires. “When you’re young, you’re already hormonal as it is,” Cunningham continues. “But to then have even more hormones inside of you, I sunk quite deeply into a depression. I've never had anything like that before and I didn't really realise what it was. I definitely wasn’t told about the mental side.”Brooks-Sutherland, whose breast cancer diagnosis was hormone-sensitive, meaning that oestrogen and progesterone made the growth of her cancer even worse, also struggled with the way the hormones de-railed her emotions. “I was already full of hormones because of freezing my eggs, then on top of that I had additional cancer medication, which also messed with my hormonal process,” she says. “The whole process is emotional, I cried so much. I just felt so unsettled and worried about everything.”The process is also financially restrictive. Prices range from £2,720 to £3,920 for an egg freezing cycle, with the average cost for freezing eggs being around £3,350. In contrast, in 2022 the weekly wage for people between the ages of 18 and 21 was just £402, and £546 for those between 22 and 29. “Egg freezing is like pressing pause, which is a privilege,” says Chen. “I would love for every young woman everywhere to have the option of doing it if they want to, but it’s expensive and not accessible because of that.”But there’s also the question of its actual reliability. Critics question the egg freezing industry as a procedure with significant medical unknowns, given no one in the pharmaceutical industry has ever done a study on the long-term effects of fertility drugs. The only thing we know for sure, is that the success rate isn’t exactly high: Amongst other reports, a 2018 study from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in the U.K. found that the use of a patients’ own frozen eggs resulted in a live birth only 18 percent of the time per cycle.On 21 April 2023, Brooks-Sutherland completed her four-month course of chemotherapy with the hopes of returning to her history teacher training course. She has plans to one day start a family – either naturally or using the eggs she’s frozen. For Cunningham, she’s relieved that the pressure of worrying about having a family is alleviated, even if just in regards to having kids. “Modern lives are so busy and chaotic, everything feels so difficult,” says Cunningham. “It’s nice that having my eggs frozen will make at least one thing hopefully easier for me.”@_naomimay