No Longer Experimental, Egg Freezing May Appeal To More Women
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Between the ages of 36 and 38, Sarah Elizabeth Richards spent $50,000 to have her eggs frozen. That wiped out her savings and the money her parents had set aside for a wedding, and she writes, it was the best investment I ever made. Improved technology gives women the choice to freeze their eggs when they're younger and schedule motherhood when they're ready. The experimental status of this procedure was lifted last year.
In a piece in The Wall Street Journal, Richards described two women just turning 30 who both work for a prestigious management consulting firm. Egg freezing gives them options for fitting a family into their work lives, she wrote, and time to meet a future partner. If you've considered this procedure, what went into your decision? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Sarah Elizabeth Richards is author of "Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It," and she joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
SARAH ELIZABETH RICHARDS: Hi. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And as you went into this decision, you admit in the book and in the piece you wrote for The Wall Street Journal that this was partly your own, well, your own mistakes earlier in life.
RICHARDS: Well, I don't - I wouldn't call them mistakes. I guess I like to think of them as learning experiences.
CONAN: Forgive me.
RICHARDS: Sure. Well, I was 34 at the time, and I had started dating someone who wasn't sure he wanted children. And so, you know, I was starting to feel more and more anxious by the minute. So when I had heard that egg freezing was available, I thought that was a really good option to protect my ability to have children in the future.
CONAN: And the amount of relief you write about after you had the operation, it was tremendous.
RICHARDS: It's amazing because before you do it, you feel this constant sense of sadness. I remember I was like painting toenails with my little 3-year-old niece and instead of enjoying that experience, the only thing I'm thinking is oh my God, am I never going to have this? Have I lost my chance to have a family? And then all of a sudden, when you go through this procedure, you wake up and it stops, you feel normal again. It's like your life is full of potential.
CONAN: And in a sense, the organizing principles of your life shift a little bit, you say?
RICHARDS: I do. I think you wake up and, you know, you've gone through this procedure and, you know, take, you know, a week or two off and then you suddenly think like OK, I got to make this happen for myself. What am I going to do? And I think you get really focused on your goals you just feel calmer, more relaxed and more empowered. You feel in control of your life again and I think that's so fundamentally.
CONAN: It was so interesting to read your accounts of other women who've also had the procedure and their approaches varied, for example - excuse me for that interruption there. Tell us about Monica who is 37.
RICHARDS: Oh, she had a failed engagement and she's going on all these dates and none of them are working out and I think she's just getting more and more frustrated. And so when she heard about it, you know, it was sort of an obvious thing, you know? You know, she decided that it was a great way and it sort of stop that pressure.
And then when after she froze, she became so focused on dating, this is actually one of my favorite stories. She went on Match and she got all these response which is I love that story because, you know, if you ever think you're in your late 30s and you're not that desirable on Match, well, she was certainly desirable. So she's getting just tons and tons of emails and she's going on all these dates and she's starting to lose track of the people she's, you know, dating that, I think, she goes to one guy's house and she calls him. She's dating like three guys with S-names and she calls them Scott when his real name is Sean(ph) and she's like oh, my God. I'm in over my head. So she actually makes some Excel spreadsheet of every guy she's dating like, you know, what they talked about on dates, whether his mother had had surgery that weekend.
CONAN: I love the little thumbnail pictures of these men she has on the spreadsheet, you know?
RICHARDS: I mean, some people would say it's neurotic. But on the other hand, I mean, she was focused on this. This is like she - this was her goal and, you know, she made it happen for herself.
CONAN: There is another woman who took a very different approach after she had the operation, Kelly.
RICHARDS: Yeah. She had gone through a really hard divorce and had dated somebody after that divorce who wasn't sure - or he didn't want children. And I think she was really rattled by the experience, so she took some time off. She - I think maybe a few months or so. But her theory was that she didn't want to make the same mistakes and pick somebody that wasn't going to work out for her. So I think she felt like once she kind of worked on her personal life in a little way, that she would make a better decision.
CONAN: So, sort of counterintuitively, she slowed down.
RICHARDS: She slowed down. She said, I want, you know, to feel good about the decision I'm making. I don't have years left, you know, for trial and error, to date a guy and then find out he's not right for me. And I think she said, like, once she had felt comfortable with herself - because she'd never really been alone. She'd always been dating someone, her whole life - or not dating, but married. But she's always been with a man her whole life. So she said just, you know, I want to feel comfortable by myself. And when she felt that way, then she was really welcome - she was ready to welcome someone into her life.
CONAN: And what has changed since this procedure was no longer - declared no longer experimental, what, last year?
RICHARDS: Well, in the beginning, the success rates were really low. And so the success rates have gotten a lot better. There's a new kind of technology called vitrification, and what it does is it flash-freezes the eggs. So in the old technology, you know, you had to freeze an egg, but an egg is full of a lot of water, and so ice crystals would form, and it was really hard to sort of get that perfect. But vitrification's kind of bypassed all that, and it's a lot better. So...
CONAN: It's a flash-freezing technique.
RICHARDS: It's a flash-freezing technique, so it almost, like, bypasses this whole, like, crystallizing, formation thing.
CONAN: And so the success rate, you say, is now up to about 50 percent.
RICHARDS: It depends on when you freeze your eggs. Obviously, if you freeze them when you're younger, when your eggs are better, you're going to have a better chance of success later. And then it also depends on what doctor you use. There's a lot of doctors with really - with a lot of experience, and then there are a lot of doctors that don't have a lot of experience.
CONAN: And that's another problem you point out: those doctors without a lot of experience. It just hasn't happened that much.
RICHARDS: Right. The issue with women freezing their eggs who want to postpone motherhood, they freeze them - I mean, I froze mine when I was 30 - between 36 and 38. I'm 42 now. I'm, you know, probably won't thaw them for a few years. So they're not getting the experience of thawing women's eggs and making babies from them. There's this huge time gap.
CONAN: And the other point that people, I guess, don't realize: You can't postpone motherhood forever. There is a...
CONAN: ...finite clock, at the end.
CONAN: Time does run out.
RICHARDS: Obviously, yeah. The women - there's always this concern that people would put it off for too long, that if you didn't have a baby deadline, you would just sort of, you know, think, oh, well. I'll just do it whenever I feel like it. I won't date. I'll put it off. But I think it made women a lot more focused. And the women in my book, I when they're mid-30 - mid-40s, they become a lot more conscious of their aging clock, and I think they feel that kind of pressure. And, you know, they know they have to go on with it. You don't want to have a baby in your 50s, 60s. I mean, that pushes it too far.
CONAN: And there are any number of concerns about the increased numbers of women who are using this procedure, concerns that were brought up when it was still an experimental idea that, well, for one thing, this would lead to - this is an exaggeration, but to say geriatric mothers.
RICHARDS: Right. And that's a valid concern. You know, you can carry a baby well into your middle age. I mean, my mother could carry my baby for me. But I don't think that's happening. I think women are conscious of the fact that, you know, they want to have a baby by a certain age. You don't want to be too old.
CONAN: And that the - this would deny children, for example, of older mothers the opportunity to interact with their grandparents.
RICHARDS: Yeah, it pushes it. It pushes it, you know, farther. But again, if you're - decide to start your family in your mid-40s - I mean, my best friend in college, her mom had her when she was 45, and no one seem to think that was a problem. So I don't think it pushes it too far.
CONAN: Are there any ethical concerns that trouble you at all?
RICHARDS: I mean, there's the question of relying on it too much. That's a valid concern. I mean, you know, even if you do the things in your life to find a partner and get married and thaw your eggs, I mean, there's still a chance it's not going to work. And then, by that time, you know, you're - you used up your natural fertility.
CONAN: Let's get some callers...
RICHARDS: So there's a little bit of a gamble there.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Sarah - excuse me. Ah. Sarah Elizabeth Richards.
RICHARDS: Thank you.
CONAN: I had to get that middle name right. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Wall Street Journal article is titled "Why I Froze My Eggs (And You Should, Too)." There is a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Rachel's on the line with us from Rochester, New York.
RICHARDS: Hi, Rachel.
RACHEL: Yes. Hi. I want - I just wanted to say I did not go through the egg freezing. I went through in vitro fertilization for unexplained infertility. And I just wanted to say that I'm so glad that advances are taking place. But just to point out that it doesn't guarantee a child. It guarantees a chance. And...
RICHARDS: Oh, that's a good way of putting that.
RACHEL: And the longer you wait, the harder it is on your body, as well.
CONAN: How did it work out for you, Rachel?
RACHEL: There were 10 rounds of different fertility drugs, including two of in vitro that did not work out. And at 33 and 36 years old, I became pregnant naturally. They never knew why it didn't work or why it suddenly did. So...
CONAN: Well, at least it worked.
RACHEL: It did.
RACHEL: Thanks so much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And she mentions in vitro. Both that procedure and this one we're talking about, of freezing the eggs, one concern that people have with it is it's really expensive.
RICHARDS: It is expensive, and that's one of the most unfortunate things about it. That may be changing now. There are some clinics that are starting to offer it at much-reduced prices. There's also a discussion of women freezing their eggs. And let's say they donated half their eggs to another woman, then maybe they could perhaps decide for themselves, and that procedure would be covered.
RICHARDS: And then one of the women in my book, she put it on her credit card.
RICHARDS: And she says she felt pride every month when she sent in that check to pay for it.
CONAN: Again, the guest is Sarah Elizabeth Richards. Her book is "Motherhood, Rescheduled." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's go to Juanita, Juanita with us from San Bernardino in California.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
JUANITA: I wished I would have frozen my eggs. I'm 41. And we're going through IVFs, and the odds of them getting any viable eggs at my age are really low. So I really wished I would have done it.
CONAN: Had you considered it?
JUANITA: You know, I had thought about it. I'm a lawyer, and I was in law school, and I was in my 30s. And I just got busy, and I didn't think about it. And now my fertility doctor tells me that most women think they can actually get pregnant naturally in their 40s, but it's actually very difficult. So, I mean, I wish I would have done it in my 30s, when I had good eggs.
CONAN: Well, Juanita, thanks very much for sharing your story.
JUANITA: Thank you.
CONAN: And good luck to you.
JUANITA: OK. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And it's interesting: One of the things you conclude in your book is that as we're getting a little bit of experience with this procedure, as it gets more popular, the age of women who are using it is dropping a little bit.
RICHARDS: Yeah. I think what's changing is that women who sort of were caught by surprise by their fertility declining, it was sort of a last-chance thing, like, you know, they were frustrated at their life wasn't lining up that - the way they wanted to. And so it was sort of a, you know, last-ditch effort, in a way, which shifted, is that I think younger women are thinking about it. It's more of a way to plan their lives. It's like it's a mentality shift.
CONAN: So that somebody, for example, who's going to medical school or law school and know not only are those things going to be very demanding for a long period of time, but the early stages of those professions are extremely demanding, and they can plan this.
RICHARDS: Right. And they know about it now. And they know that the science is much better now, and that it's a lot more culturally accepted. There's less of the stigma. You have a lot of celebrities that are talking about it. So I think it's on their radar much younger, which is a great thing.
CONAN: When you talk about stigma, how does that express itself?
RICHARDS: You know, it's - when you reached a certain age, that's not how you think you're going to be spending your late 30s. I didn't think at 36, you know, I'd be getting hormone shots. So there is a bit of sadness about it.
I think, though, our cultural narrative is shifting, you know, where instead of it being something seen as desperate or sad, it's more of an empowering thing. It's sort of taking tired of your life, tacking control of your fertility. So I think that's sort of the shift.
CONAN: And it is - and it's important to recognize this point - utterly unprecedented. This has never - the possibility has never been available at any time in human history.
RICHARDS: It's really amazing, when you think about it. I - sometimes I still, you know, I'm amazed what it offers you. It's really science fiction. It's like your - this thing you've dreamt about, like, what if I could just stop that pressure? If I could just stop time for a little bit and let me get my life where I wanted to be, and then, all of the sudden, you hear it exists. And you're, like, really? I could do that? So it's really an amazing idea, and sometimes it's surprising that it exists.
CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. And this is Alou(ph), and Alou's with us from Berkeley.
ALOU: Hi. My best friend had twins at the age of 49. She'd gone through several rounds of IVF, and ended up - her eggs didn't work. So she had an egg donor. And I think one thing people need to take - it was - been very difficult for her. And I think it's hard to adjust at that age to having children, especially twins.
CONAN: Well, I can understand the twins part. But at that age, why is it more difficult at that age than it might be at 25?
ALOU: Because you've lived your whole life for yourself, to the time you're almost 50. And I think it's (technical difficulties). It's a big adjustment, no matter how much you want (technical difficulties). They're not - it's not at the beach all the time, you know?
CONAN: No. And that's true at any age, but you may be right that at 50, it might be a bit more of a jolt.
CONAN: And it was interesting also that there - she talked about an egg donor. There seems to be a market in eggs that you're writing about in the book.
RICHARDS: Yeah. I think that's something a lot of women don't know about. But one of the biggest advantages of egg-freezing technology is that you can freeze donor eggs. So, you know, there was a case in my book where her eggs didn't work, egg freezing didn't worked for her, which I thought that was really important to explore.
Like, what if your worst nightmare came true, and you spent all this money, and it didn't work in the end? And what she ended up using was a donor egg and, you know, she ended up having her baby. And, you know, it wasn't the perfect solution, but it wasn't a bad one, either.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your time today.
RICHARDS: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Sarah Elizabeth Richards, author of "Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It." Her piece on egg freezing ran in The Wall Street Journal, May 3rd. She joined us from our bureau in New York.
Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, with a critical look at multitasking. We'll see you again on Monday with Walter Mosley and Laura Lippman, two crime writers, on why we love a good courtroom drama. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.