Can Women Put Motherhood on Ice?

Progress Educational Trust
Great Hall, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 9 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JQ
15 June 2016
This public event was organised by the Progress Educational Trust (PET), was supported by the Scottish Government, and was held at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. It was a satellite event of the World Congress of the International Association of Bioethics.
The cryopreservation (freezing or vitrification) of eggs offers great hope of being able to delay motherhood and beat the biological clock. Although women's fertility declines with age, more and more women are putting off having children. Can egg freezing deliver on its promise?
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's latest report on fertility trends and figures includes, for the first time, a section on egg freezing. It shows that the number of women freezing their eggs has increased substantially in the UK - especially since vitrification, which is thought to be more effective than slower freezing techniques, has become widely available - and that this figure continues to increase year on year. However, the proportion of frozen eggs that are being thawed and used in treatment remains low. In the past 15 years, fewer than 60 babies have been born to patients freezing and thawing their own eggs, whether for medical or non-medical reasons.
These figures may be modest but the debate has become big, especially when it comes to cryopreservation for non-medical reasons - so-called 'social egg freezing'. Current UK law states that eggs can be stored when there is no medical need to do so, but only for a maximum of 10 years. The storage period can only be extended beyond this if a medical practitioner provides a written opinion that the patient is prematurely infertile, or likely to become so.
Some argue that the possibility of delaying motherhood means winning the battle for gender equality, while others argue the opposite. When Apple and Facebook began offering egg freezing as a perk to their US employees, this was portrayed positively as supporting women to plan the lives they want, but was also portrayed negatively as women being told that they cannot have children and a career at the same time. Meanwhile, even the US military is now offering to pay for egg freezing for its troops.
The likelihood of being able to conceive with thawed eggs is fiercely debated, in light of the data that has emerged to date. Fertility figurehead Professor Lord Robert Winston has told The Times that clinics which charge handsomely for cryopreservation are being 'highly exploitative', and has told Woman's Hour that 'the idea that you can store eggs by freezing I think is a scam'. By contrast, some clinicians are so confident of the reliability of egg freezing that they have published papers arguing that 'all women should freeze their eggs'.
This event asked:
How many eggs would a woman need to freeze, to have a reasonable chance of pregnancy?
What are the risks of egg freezing?
Does egg freezing give women more control and greater reproductive autonomy?
How are egg freezing services being marketed?
Is it misleading to promote egg freezing as an insurance policy?
Should employers be encouraging women to delay motherhood?
Where can women get trustworthy information about egg freezing?

David Baird
Emeritus Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Reproductive Health
Dr Sarah Martins Da Silva
Consultant Gynaecologist at Ninewells Hospital and Medical School's Assisted Conception Unit
Dr Ainsley Newson
Associate Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Bioethics Programme at the University of Sydney's Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine
Dr Angel Petropanagos
Research Associate in the Impact Ethics team at Dalhousie University's Faculty of Medicine

Jane Norman
Cofounder and Nurse Manager at Aberdeen Fertility Centre

Partners and supporters:
World Congress of the International Association of Bioethics