Don’t put your face too close to the gas – it could kill you in seconds,’ warns embryologist Emma Whitney, as a cloud of liquid nitrogen erupts from the steel tank in front of me.
The tank is one of several large freezers in this clinic housing hundreds of frozen eggs and embryos. One day, it is hoped, they will become babies. I’m the first journalist to have a peek at this store at the Evewell fertility clinic in West London‘s Hammersmith, which charges around £5,000 for egg freezing.
But I’m not just here for professional reasons. I am also one of the many women who are considering transferring their eggs into one of these giant freezers, in the quest to become a mother.
I’m 32 and recently shelved plans to start a family after splitting with my partner of nine years. But I know I want children one day.
Friends in similar positions are freezing their eggs to ‘buy more time’. It’s a ‘back-up plan’, and they say I should do it too.
Egg freezing, which involves a short extraction procedure, storing them in liquid nitrogen and using IVF to fertilise them at a later date, has exploded in popularity over the past five years.
Eve Simmons, 32, asks: Should I ignore the sceptics and pay £5,000 to freeze my eggs?
I’m 32 and recently shelved plans to start a family after splitting with my partner of nine years. But I know I want children one day, says Eve Simmons
The number of procedures, which cost between £4,000 and £10,000, jumped by just over 60 per cent between 2019 and 2021, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – the UK’s independent regulator of fertility treatment.
One clinic told The Mail on Sunday it had seen almost a ten per cent rise in the number of egg freezing requests in the past year alone. Investment banks and tech companies in the City of London have even begun offering the treatment as an employment perk in order to hang on to female executives.
Since 2019, financial services firm Blackrock has offered its female employees £15,000 for fertility preservation. ‘Women are seeing people talk about it on social media and want to explore the option,’ says Evewell’s Ms Whitney. ‘Some have come out of long-term relationships, others have been more career focused and get to their mid-30s and realise they’re not where they thought they’d be. It’s about taking some control over what happens in their lives, and making sure women have options.’
Other fertility clinics use similar phrases to market the treatment: it ‘gives women the freedom to choose when to have a baby’ and to ‘take control of their fertility’. But I’m sceptical.
First, few babies in the UK have been born from frozen eggs. The most recent figure I could find was from 2016, which was a meagre 39.
HFEA suggests about 18 per cent of frozen eggs end up as babies. And, according to a recent HFEA warning, many clinics aren’t transparent about these poor statistics and are luring patients in with aggressive marketing tactics.
A good friend of mine pulled out of treatment last week after a clinic initially quoted her £3,000 before bumping up the price to £8,000 without explanation.
A string of recent articles written by women have described the treatment as laborious, prohibitively expensive and not worth the pain. One young woman who spoke to me, but didn’t want to be identified, said egg freezing was ‘the worst thing I’ve ever done’ – and she didn’t even pay for it.
‘I was offered to freeze my eggs on the NHS, to preserve my fertility before I had chemotherapy for breast cancer,’ said the 32-year-old marketing executive from Essex.
IT’S A FACT
The number of women freezing their eggs has risen by 460 per cent since 2010, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
‘But the clinic never should have let me do it because I reacted so badly to the hormones used to stimulate egg growth. In the end, it was worse than chemo.’
The woman says she suffered extreme bloating and agonising pain for a month during the treatment, which left her barely able to move. ‘I was going for scans and my eggs weren’t developing – it clearly wasn’t working,’ she said. ‘But they kept on pumping me with hormones. In the end I got three eggs, but it wasn’t worth the absolute hell.’
What’s more, experts have warned that the chances of pregnancy from frozen eggs are so low that it’s like ‘a lottery ticket’.
Professor Gab Kovacs, a specialist in reproductive gynaecology from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, says: ‘It is like a really spurious insurance policy that might pay out – or might not.’
‘LUCKY’: Sarah Cowan, 35, paid £4,000 to freeze 13 eggs
‘My clinic was basic, but it was perfectly fine and comfortable. I’m really lucky with my experience, the procedure was over in 40 minutes and I was pretty much fine afterwards, albeit quite tired for a few days,’ said Sarah (pictured)
The process begins with a consultation, followed by blood tests to check levels of fertility hormones.
Next, during the start of their monthly cycle, the women inject themselves with hormones, which they repeat twice a day for two weeks, to stimulate the follicles in the ovaries to grow and develop eggs. They then go for scans every two days to check on how the follicles are growing. If things go as planned, at the end of the two weeks a 30-minute procedure is carried out to extract the eggs. This can be performed under local anaesthetic or sedation, and patients are ready to go home within a couple of hours.
Some women will need to repeat this two or three times to collect enough eggs. The number depends on the woman’s age at the time of freezing, but is usually at least ten.
How to make sure you’re not ripped off
- Get the price of all the drugs that doctors plan to use in your treatment and the dose. Many clinics do not include these medicines in their basic price because they are sourced from outside the clinic. ‘The more doses of a particular drug you need, the more expensive,’ says Rachel Cutting from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). ‘Older women, for instance those in their late 40s, tend to need higher doses to encourage their eggs to mature.’
- Ask how many cycles of treatment you’ll need to extract enough eggs. Most clinics base pricing on one cycle of treatment, so if you need another they’ll charge roughly the same again. ‘If money isn’t an issue, I’d advise doing more than one cycle to maximise your chances an egg will fertilise,’ says Joyce Harper, professor of reproductive science at University College London.
- Watch out for add-ons and unnecessary frills. ‘Some clinics are offering analysis of the eggs’ health using artificial intelligence,’ says Ms Cutting, ‘but there is no evidence that this technology does what it says it does and it is entirely unnecessary.’
- Visit the HFEA website to check its assessments of IVF clinics that offer egg freezing. The body carries out annual inspections on both NHS and private services across the country.
The main risk is a condition called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, where the ovaries swell badly after the hormone injections, causing pain and bloating. Studies show it occurs mildly in about 20 per cent of women, and severely – risking blood clots – in about one per cent.
‘The pain varies from patient to patient,’ says Emma Kafton, clinic manager at Evewell. ‘Some are in pain for a few hours or a few days afterwards, others feel nothing. This is why close monitoring is crucial.’
After the procedure there are a couple of follow-up appointments and then the women are sent on their way, paying £300-£400 per year to store the eggs, which, by law, must be destroyed after 55 years.
When a woman comes back for her eggs she’ll have to fork out at least £5,000 for IVF. While the age she decides to get pregnant doesn’t affect the success rate – the key question is: does it work?
The first thing to say is that there is not enough data available in the UK to make a firm conclusion.
Medical egg freezing has been available since the late 1980s for patients about to undergo fertility-destroying cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy. However, the majority of women in these cases had their eggs frozen when they were children or very young adults, when fertility is in its prime. And significantly, most did not actually use their frozen eggs. Having said that, the data that exists, outside of the UK, isn’t bleak at all.
In June, experts at Belgium’s Centre For Reproductive Medicine found that, of 110 women who used eggs frozen between 2009 and 2019, 72 later became pregnant and 45 gave birth. This would make the birth rate roughly 41 per cent – considerably higher than the 18 per cent suggested in the UK by HFEA. And a US study published last year by fertility doctors from one American clinic found that 543 women who froze eggs aged under 38 had a 51 per cent chance of giving birth.
‘Usually, almost all the eggs survive the thawing process and then around three-quarters will fertilise and make an embryo,’ says Professor Kovacs.
‘Of those, 70-80 per cent will produce a pregnancy and then around half will go to full term.’
Rachel Cutting, the director of compliance and information at HFEA, adds: ‘The egg-freezing technology used to be hit and miss, with few eggs surviving. But now we have very effective techniques and the success rates are good.’
In comparison, even after a year of trying to get pregnant naturally, only roughly 40 per cent of women will succeed – and the risk of genetic abnormalities is far higher.
But there are two details to bear in mind. First, freezing requires a lot of eggs to be collected. And second, whether an egg will fertilise depends on the woman’s age when she undergoes the procedure to collect and freeze them.
‘Some women need several cycles to collect enough eggs to make it worth their while,’ says Evewell’s Ms Kafton. ‘Most clinics charge per cycle.
‘And if a woman can only afford one but it is clear from her scans and blood tests that too few eggs will be collected, there’s little point in her going through with it.’
Ms Whitney adds: ‘If you freeze eggs under 35, most of them will be good enough quality to survive the thawing process and make a viable pregnancy. When you get to 37, this is true for about half, and if you freeze eggs at 40, it’s a quarter.’
Freezing my eggs now would be ideal, experts tell me, but how much should I be paying?
Michaela froze 22 eggs in her 30s… now she has a healthy one-year-old
One passionate advocate of egg freezing is 39-year-old Michaela Jones, a tech executive from London.
Without the 22 eggs she had frozen in October 2018 she wouldn’t have her son Daniel, who is now a year old.
‘I’d tell any woman in her 30s who wants kids, but isn’t ready yet, to freeze their eggs,’ she says. ‘Yes it’s not a guarantee, but it could bring you the most important blessing of your life.’
Michaela underwent the procedure aged 34, shortly after meeting her current partner, who is five years younger. ‘It was a brand new relationship and I didn’t want to put extra pressure on it by saying we needed to have a baby right away,’ she says. ‘But I knew my fertility was going to decline soon.
‘He was also away working in Spain a lot, so it wasn’t ideal timing for a baby. I wanted to give myself options for the future.’
A clinic in London was recommended to her and after tests and scans she started the process – injecting hormones for a fortnight to stimulate egg growth followed by a procedure to collect them.
‘The injections made me so bloated – like I was three months pregnant,’ she says. ‘And a few days after the procedure I started to feel weak and feverish, but the clinic gave me some drugs to rebalance my hormones and I felt fine.’
In 2021, the couple felt ready to start a family.
The clinic thawed 11 eggs and, of those, five were fertilised with her partner’s sperm and developed into embryos. The healthiest was injected into Michaela’s uterus a few weeks later.
‘After five days I had a blood test that showed I was pregnant,’ she says.
In July last year she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. ‘The pregnancy was fine with no complications,’ she adds.
All in all, she paid roughly £10,000. ‘It’s 100 per cent worth it,’ she says. ‘This gives you options. It gives you hope.’F
A quick Google reveals a shocking variation in prices – with some clinics charging up to £10,000.
One 35-year-old woman I spoke to told me she paid just under £4,000 to freeze 13 eggs last year. Her friend, meanwhile, paid £7,500 for almost identical treatment. ‘She went to one of the fancy clinics where they do things like give you a menu to order lunch from after your procedure,’ says 35-year-old Sarah Cowan, a digital marketing executive from London.
‘My clinic was basic, but it was perfectly fine and comfortable.
‘I’m really lucky with my experience, the procedure was over in 40 minutes and I was pretty much fine afterwards, albeit quite tired for a few days.’
Some clinics include the cost of the hormones in their pricing and others don’t, while others may charge extra for the scans of the womb and ovaries. But experts say as long as you know what to ask for, it is relatively easy to get an accurate idea of the total costs upfront – see the box above.
‘I’d tell patients to budget around £5,000 for the whole thing,’ says Ms Kafton.
That’s an amount I could afford, and seems to be a small price to pay for boosting my chances of having a family when I’m ready to – as well as taking the pressure off, even if for only a few years.
Embryologist Ms Whitney tells me ‘For a lot of women, the benefit is psychological. It stops them sticking with an unhappy relationship because they think that person is their only hope of having children.’
I put this to Prof Kovacs.
‘The problem is that women these days are too focused on finding Mr Right, which is unrealistic,’ he says. ‘Maybe women should settle for Mr Not Too Bad instead, so they can have children naturally.’
I said I couldn’t imagine this advice going down well with my generation of women. And these days, it’s not always a partner women are waiting for.
‘More and more women are opting to have children alone,’ says Ms Whitney. ‘They know they don’t want them right now because of career choices or whatever else, but they want to do it when they’re ready without relying on a partner’s timeline.
‘In fact, we recently had two patients who were best friends and giving birth alone, using sperm donations, at roughly the same time.
‘Their babies were born during the Covid pandemic and they moved in together for support, and sort of shared the parenting. They said it was more of a harmonious partnership than they could have imagined having with any man.’
I think I’m sold.