Egg freezing (oocyte cryopreservation) is becoming more common in North America. A Canadian fertility clinic reported an increase of 180% from 2017 to 2018. In the United States, 475 women froze their eggs in 2009 compared to 13,275 in 2018, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. While the reasons for egg freezing vary, they likely have to do with women having children later on, as well as other lifestyle-based choices like waiting for the right partner or for financial stability. Women may also want to freeze their eggs for medical reasons.
Egg freezing has become part of society’s mainstream dialogue, but it doesn’t happen just like that *snaps*. Companies promising to retrieve eggs often oversimplify what it entails, while popular culture adds to the myth that it’s an instant procedure.
So, what does freezing your eggs mean?
In the simplest of terms, egg freezing is when unfertilized eggs are removed from the ovaries (or harvested) and kept frozen until they can be used for conception. Before this procedure can take place, there are a series of tests that have to be done.
One of the tests will likely include checking the ovarian reserve. Doctors will test the concentration of the follicle-stimulating hormone, which can determine the quantity and quality of the eggs. Doctors can also do a blood test to check the levels of estradiol—a major sex hormone in females—which indicates the ovaries’ ability to produce eggs. These kinds of tests can help predict how ovaries will react to fertility medication.
“Eggs grow inside these follicles, but not every follicle contains an egg,” Northwestern Medicine explains. “During ovulation, which is typically monthly, each dominant follicle releases a single egg. The other follicles are lost.”
If your egg count is low, then reproductive hormones can be given to you in higher doses, allowing more follicles to grow in a month so multiple eggs can be harvested.
It’s normal to receive blood tests as well as ultrasounds at this stage. Doctors may also screen for infectious diseases, like HIV and hepatitis B and C.
This is a condensed version of the egg freezing process. For more information, consult your healthcare provider or a medical professional.
What happens next?
In order to ensure there are enough eggs to retrieve, ovarian stimulation is done by injecting hormones to “stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs,” a PBS article explains. These hormones don’t actually create new eggs, but they stimulate egg growth to the point that they can be harvested. “This stage involves frequent visits to the fertility clinic, about five in 10 days, while the ovaries are regularly monitored by vaginal ultrasound.”
The next step is the actual egg retrieval, done under sedation. A needle with a tiny suction device is inserted through the vaginal wall and into an ovary. The device removes the eggs and its fluid from the follicles.
“Doctors give this fluid to the embryologist, who can immediately tell how many eggs they're getting,” M.D. a board-certified ob-gyn, and reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist Dr. Lauren Roth told Parents.
Approximately 15 eggs can be harvested during a cycle, according to the Mayo Clinic. It takes the ovaries two weeks to recover and there might be discomfort or bloating afterwards.
Most commonly, the eggs are frozen (yes, literally) in a process called vitrification. This is done by ultra-rapid cooling into liquid nitrogen where they’re stored.
When the eggs are needed, they can be thawed and fertilized with sperm. This method is used for In Vitro Fertilization. Currently, there is no limit on how long eggs can be frozen for, and their quality doesn’t decrease with time. But it can be costly to keep storing them.
A pricey endeavour for Canadians
In Canada, coverage for egg freezing depends on the province. There is no national plan and funding from the government is not available everywhere for those who want to conceive. Currently, four provinces offer financial assistance for fertility treatments: Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Quebec. Each of these provinces has a special criteria for coverage. For example, to qualify in Ontario, there has to be a medical reason, like “getting treatment for a medical condition that may cause infertility.” For egg freezing, they only cover one treatment cycle per patient. In New Brunswick, the government offers a one-time maximum grant of $5,000 for qualifying residents, but it is reserved for those dealing with infertility issues.
“Costs vary depending on the clinic, but are usually in the region of $10,000 to extract and freeze the eggs, $300 per year to store them,” a CBC article explains. This is the general price tag for egg freezing in Canada without any financial assistance.
Egg freezing is a viable option for those looking to conceive later in life, whatever the reason. Make sure to do your own research and talk to your doctor about what the process entails.