Egg-freezing parties help women turn panic into peace
by Rachel Lehmann-Haupt | August 26, 2016 10:00 am
When Lisa, a 40-year-old high school teacher in San Mateo, California, gussied herself up in a floral wrap dress and a hint of plum lipstick and drove up to San Francisco on a balmy February evening, it wasn’t to meet a hot Tinder date. Instead she was heading out by herself to an egg-freezing party, a modern ladies’ dinner at upscale Battery Street Italian restaurant Il Fornaio, hosted by Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, an ob-gyn otherwise known as the Egg Whisperer or simply Dr. Aimee.
This was the doctor’s 17th such party since 2014, all of which she’s paid for with her own money and a nominal $20 entrance fee. The idea is similar to a Stella and Dot jewelry party, except rather than serving wine and food to sell shiny baubles, she says her goal is to help women in their 20s, 30s and 40s learn about their fertility.
Dr. Aimee also promotes her cause and services, of course, which include fertility testing and egg freezing. She’s adamant, however, that her goal is not a hard sell of this expensive fertility-extension procedure, whereby a woman undergoes hormone shots and surgery to extract her eggs, which are then preserved in liquid nitrogen until she’s ready to use them. Rather, by taking the fertility conversation into a more relaxed social setting, Dr. Aimee, alongside a burgeoning number of doctors in her field, is attempting to take the stigma out of what has traditionally been a difficult discussion that happens in hushed tones on the social edge.
“Most ob-gyns are not trained about what fertility means for women,” she tells me a few days before the party. “My goal is for them to say to their patients, ‘Hey, let’s talk about fertility risk factors,’ and offer them the option to check their fertility the way they might check their cholesterol.”
As I step inside the egg-freezing party, a server offers me a glass of white wine and directs me to a buffet table filled with delicate bites. The tables are decorated with white tablecloths and bouquets of pink roses and white hydrangeas. Dr. Aimee, a tall brunette casually dressed in black pants and a flattering cotton drape maternity shirt (she’s five months pregnant with her fourth child), personally and warmly greets every woman who walks into the room. I take a seat next to Lisa, the high school teacher, who is shyly sipping a glass of Chardonnay.
“I’ve been busy pursuing my career, and suddenly I’m 40,” Lisa says when I ask why she’s here. “I wish someone had told me about egg freezing in my 30s, because now I don’t have that much time. I didn’t know about fertility tests. No doctor has ever said to me, ‘Have you thought about this?’”
“I’m thinking I’m going to do it when I’m 31 if I’m still single,” says Aileen, a pretty 25-year-old wearing a casual blazer and jeans. She works at an integrative health clinic in Marin County and tells me she will be starting medical school in the fall. “Knowing I’ll be in school training for seven to 10 years, I think this is a good option.”
These single women’s experiences are far from marginal in an era in which a growing majority of adult females put their economic power ahead of their procreative power. Most of us are getting married and having children after we get our degrees and are on more solid ground professionally, and many of us are not getting married at all. In her new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, journalist Rebecca Traister reports that in 2009, the proportion of American women 18 and older who were married dropped below half. “During the years in which I had come of age,” she writes, “American women had pioneered an entirely new kind of adulthood, one that was not kicked off by marriage, but by years and, in many cases, whole lives, lived on their own, outside matrimony.”
The challenge that comes with this new era is that many women are also wrestling with ambiguities and desires around having children while backed up against the inevitable tick-tock of their biological clocks. As we’re postponing marriage, the age of first-time motherhood and fatherhood is naturally rising, especially in cities. In the U.S. alone, the number of women getting pregnant between the ages of 35 and 44 has nearly doubled since 1990, but many are also running into fertility problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 8 women today has trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy.
Technology and feminism, however, have made it possible for more women to make new reproductive choices. Our mothers’ generation started using birth-control pills to turn off their ability to conceive in order to enjoy sexual freedom and gain economic power. Today, that economic power allows their daughters to save their fertility and freeze their eggs for use farther down the road.
So it’s not surprising why the women I met at Dr. Aimee’s party have stepped out on the town alone to talk and learn about their options among strangers, and also why egg-freezing parties are aiming to market this reproductive tool as something that’s fashionable and cool. Ever since the American Society for Reproductive Medicine removed the “experimental” label from the procedure in 2012, a growing number of fertility clinics and doctors are offering the option. Companies like Facebook, Apple and Google have begun covering it on their health insurance plans up to $20,000. Another company, called EggBanxx (slogan: “Smart Women Freeze”), has been hosting its own “Let’s Chill” parties in San Francisco, New York, L.A. and Boston as a way to raise awareness and market its services. EggBanxx negotiates the cost of the procedure with a physician in its growing network, then helps clients get loans and pays the up-front costs in exchange for a down payment.
But to be clear, this isn’t just about promoting fertility awareness and a way to outsmart one’s biological clock for the sake of social good or feminist empowerment. It’s also incredibly lucrative for the doctors, clinics and companies who offer the procedure. It costs women between $10,000 and $15,000, in addition to more than $1,000 a year for storage fees. Allied Market Research has projected that the global fertility business will grow to a $21.6 billion concern by 2020.
Even though egg freezing has come a long way, it’s still out of reach for most people. Lisa tells me that she can’t afford it because her school district doesn’t cover it on their plan. “It’s still a luxury item,” she says, “and it shouldn’t be.”
Dr. Aimee takes the stage at her San Francisco egg-freezing party and stands in front of a projection screen displaying a PowerPoint presentation. “This is going to be a fun fertility seminar,” she says, and then delivers the stark reality of what happens to a woman’s fertility as she ages, which I know for some women in the room who are nearing 40 and hoping to have a baby probably isn’t so fun to hear. According to the ASRM, each month a healthy, fertile 30-year-old woman tries to get pregnant, she has a 20 percent chance of succeeding. By age 40, that drops to just a five percent success rate per cycle.
Dr. Aimee begins by focusing on fertility awareness and explains that if women in their 20s and early 30s become educated about their fertility, many won’t run into the infertility problems that so many in the generation ahead of them have experienced.
The first step, she says, is to test your fertility, something her clinic offers patients through a number of methods. But Dr. Aimee doesn’t get into a controversy surrounding the process: Many experts, including those at the ASRM, still believe that the procedure shouldn’t be sold to otherwise healthy women as a way to delay motherhood for social or career purposes. It’s now well-known that Facebook started covering the procedure after an employee with cancer asked CEO Sheryl Sandberg to do so, because she would otherwise not be able to conceive a child following chemotherapy. Of the situation, Sandberg told Time magazine, “I talked about it with our head of HR, and said, ‘God, we should cover this.’ And then we looked at each other and said, ‘Why would we only cover this for women with cancer, why wouldn’t we cover this more broadly?’ ”
The “more broadly” is where critics stepped in, accusing companies like Facebook of offering the procedure as a way to coerce their female employees into working more years child-free. No doubt related, Dr. Aimee admits that she’s gotten death threats about trying to get rich off women’s desperation. Yet she remains confident that this is not about coercion, but rather about a reproductive choice, just like birth control or abortion. “I just want to give women options, particularly when it seems like their options have run out,” she says.
Today, because the technology has advanced, the success rates for freezing and thawing have dramatically improved. But that still doesn’t guarantee a baby. After one woman at the party raises her hand and asks what the chances are that she will get pregnant from her frozen eggs, Dr. Aimee says 20 percent, and then makes a joke: “Humans are not like bunnies—we’re really bad at reproduction.” She also explains a little bit about the experience. “You might feel bloated and gain a little weight. During the shots, you’re not going to want to wear your skinny jeans.”
Her description of the procedure proves all too familiar. When I first got my eggs frozen, in 2009, it was still considered experimental and not covered by insurance. In fact, I used some inheritance money to pay for it. Shortly after New Year’s Day, having just ended a long-term relationship, I started giving myself the shots to stimulate egg growth. I would wake up, make coffee, brush my teeth and then shoot hormones cloned from Chinese hamster ovaries into my belly. It was surreal. The night before my egg 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.
On the day my eggs were retrieved, a nurse took my vital signs and then led me to lie down on a surgery table. While I was asleep, using an ultrasound needle, the doctor extracted my eggs and handed them off to a nurse. An embryologist then hunted for the most mature ones, put them in a petri dish filled with cryoprotectant and then placed them in liquid nitrogen, where they will stay frozen. When I woke up, I learned they had taken out 35 eggs, what most doctors say is a good number.
Six years after that experience, I’m happy to hear Dr. Aimee tell the group the in vitro fertilization rates of pregnancy with frozen eggs were found to be the same as with embryos, and the data also shows that IVF cycles conducted with frozen eggs cause no increase in birth defects, developmental disorders or chromosomal abnormalities.
But I can also say that the reality of the procedure is definitely not a party. It’s much closer to climbing a mountain: The journey is steep and hard, but when I was done, I felt a sense of accomplishment and peace, knowing my younger eggs were preserved in a little test tube in a big metal tank, waiting for me to use when my life was in the right place, hopefully resulting in a baby.
It’s also important to keep in mind that fertility is extremely variable, as each woman has her own unique biology; some women can easily conceive in their late 30s and even early 40s. In fact, the great irony of my story is that I never even used my frozen eggs, and ended up getting pregnant with my son at 41 without going through in vitro fertilization. But I also credit the sense of peace I got from taking advantage of this reproductive choice.
At the end of Dr. Aimee’s presentation, waiters come around and serve us pieces of chocolate cake topped with whipped cream. “I love that we’re talking about this stuff in a social setting,” says Aileen, the aspiring doctor, as she digs into her dessert.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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