By Mary MacVean
Los Angeles Times.
If you peeked in on a recent party at the Viceroy Santa Monica, you might have noticed that the guests, almost all female, were chatting quietly, hesitantly, in pairs or trios. This wasn’t a group of good friends, Prosecco and hors d’oeuvres aside.
The women were there to consider an investment: spending thousands of dollars to retrieve and freeze their eggs in case they need them one day to try to become a parent.
Egg-freezing parties, this one called On Ice, are a thing now. The idea is that not enough women are thinking about this procedure and are not thinking about it soon enough.
“Everyone who can afford to freeze their eggs should freeze their eggs. Women should take this seriously,” Dr. Vicken Sahakian said at the Viceroy hotel party. “The older you are, the more eggs you need. The older you are, the fewer eggs you produce.”
Egg freezing, or oocyte cryopreservation, is neither a sure thing nor cheap, running $10,000 or more a cycle, not to mention hundreds of dollars a year in storage fees, and rarely covered by insurance or employers (Facebook and Apple being among the exceptions). And there is plenty of cultural debate over whether egg freezing takes advantage of women desperate to have a child or is a way to empower them.
But doctors and women who’ve done it call it insurance; women say it enables them to establish a career, travel or find the right partner before becoming a parent.
“It will be absolutely the greatest gift you can give yourself because it will give you the opportunity to create the family of your dreams, and you will never regret it,” Dr. Carrie Wambach said at the Viceroy, where there was a raffle for free medication needed for the process.
At the Viceroy, and at parties on other nights at Boa Steakhouse on the Sunset Strip and in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, doctors explain the procedure and answer the nervous questions: I’m 39, or 37 or 35. Is it too late?
The first baby conceived from a frozen egg was born in 1986, and the procedure has been used with women whose fertility could become compromised by chemotherapy or other medical treatments.
A couple of things converged in recent years to make the procedure increasingly common.
One is a flash-freezing system called vitrification, a “game changer,” because it solved the problem of ice crystals that could damage the egg cell, said Jason Barritt, embryology laboratory director at Southern California Reproductive Center.
Second, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a professional group, said in a paper published in 2013 that egg freezing should no longer be considered experimental.
But information about how well it works today seems to be a moving target, dependent on age, luck and genetics. Another statistical complication is that, although many women have frozen their eggs, far fewer have so far returned to use them.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine said the clinical pregnancy rate per thawed egg in trials it reviewed was 4.5 percent to 12 percent. Some doctors recommend 10 frozen eggs for each desired pregnancy. For women older than 40, doctors say fewer than 10 percent of the harvested eggs are genetically “normal.”
Critics and proponents say there is little long-term information about the health of children born from frozen eggs. The Mayo Clinic notes that the risks of egg freezing for the woman include rare complications from fertility drugs, as well as emotional risks associated with the limited success rate of becoming a parent.
The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology reports that at least 956 babies were born from frozen donor eggs in 2013.
When Jennifer Frappier’s grandmother turned 35, she had given birth to 10 children. When her mother turned 35, Frappier was 17.
Jennifer, an actor, is 39 and single, with nine frozen eggs.
“One of these could be my kid one day,” Frappier said, looking at a photo on her phone. “My mom calls them her frozen grandbabies.”
She broke up with a longtime boyfriend when she was 34, an age when she never expected to have to start over.
“This is not what I thought I would be, or where I thought I would be, as a kid,” she said.
She was worried her prospects for motherhood were diminishing. A therapist told her about egg freezing, she started doing research and two years ago she underwent the procedure.
She talked about her decision in the Champagne Room at the Beverly Wilshire, where waiters offered little tacos and grilled cheese sandwich bites to a standing-room-only crowd. At the bar, people could order a pink cocktail called a Banxxtini.
“I thought: ‘This makes a lot of sense. Why wouldn’t I do this? I’m in a place financially where I can. I don’t have a reason not to. And I’ll regret it if I don’t.'”
Her friends suggested a blog, so she did one and is in the process of making a film called “Chill,” which she described as a documentary about “balancing life, career and cheating the biological clock.”
Questions swirl around the egg-freezing phenomenon: Are women shouldering just another burden of creating families? Is it now their responsibility to freeze their eggs in time? Should we instead reform workplaces to support child-bearing and -rearing with such options as flexible employment and on-site day care?
Egg freezing can “create the illusion that we can have it all,” said Miriam Zoll, author of “Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility, and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies.”
The reproductive industry “has done a very good job of marketing the hope and power,” Zoll said.
Women need to think clearly about “what is it you think you’re going to achieve,” said Francoise Baylis, a professor of ethics in the medicine faculty at Canada’s Dalhousie University. “Is your goal to have a family? Because there are easier ways.”
Baylis also questions whether parties are an appropriate place to discuss a medical procedure, Botox parties notwithstanding.
“Do you have a Champagne party to spread the word about a new hypertensive drug?” Baylis asked.
Dr. Kathleen Brennan of the UCLA Fertility and Reproductive Health Center, which has not participated in egg-freezing parties, said she expects that “down the road, people will do egg freezing in their college years, when they’re young. Put those eggs away, go on with their lives and deal with their reproductive life later.”
Brennan is 37 and has three children. Were her situation different, she said, she’d consider egg freezing. But she also said science is moving faster than other aspects of society, which needs to allow working women to have children when they’re ready.
“We need to make a stride in our society … toward making families an important part of society and being able to allow women to be part of the working world and still be able to have kids,” Brennan said.
Wendie Wilson-Miller and Shalene Petricek founded Great Possibilities, the agency that threw the party at the Viceroy. Their company helps women find the right doctors, negotiate prices or financing and generally will “hold your hand” through the process. They are paid by the patients.
They also have gone through it themselves.
Petricek had been climbing the corporate ladder in the biotech industry, and, when she hadn’t met a partner, decided to begin having her eggs frozen when she was 37, an age when many women are considering it but an age when statistics are already against them.
Petricek, now 44, has been through four cycles and may try three more, she said over coffee. She was considered “a poor responder” and has 10 eggs, a disappointing surprise.
“I was in complete denial. I look young. I feel young,” she said.
Wilson-Miller, who has worked in assisted-reproduction technology for 16 years, froze 22 eggs when she was 30 and single.
“For me, personally, it allowed me to relax a little bit,” Wilson-Miller said. “I knew it wasn’t a guarantee.”
She later married and had two children the conventional way. Some of her eggs were then donated to a woman whose fertility was compromised by cancer treatments.
Christine Hoffman was thrilled that Wilson-Miller froze her eggs. One of them led to the birth of her daughter.
“If you have a desire to have a child,” she told the Viceroy gathering, “and you have the opportunity to freeze that little egg, go for it.”