An article about a successful pregnancy and birth of twins conceived with eggs that had been frozen for twelve years (Sunday Times 18.11.12) has prompted me to muse further about delayed child-bearing and older motherhood. The couple in the article were indeed right to refer to their daughters as miracles because twelve years ago egg freezing (as opposed to embryo freezing which is much easier) was in it’s infancy and most eggs did not survive the thawing process. Today, with modern vitrification techniques egg preservation has become a very viable option for fertile women with cancer prior to treatment that will reduce their fertility or make them completely infertile. It can also be used by young women to extend their fertile life into their forties and beyond.
At the Fertility Show a few weeks ago I was told by a counsellor at one of London’s leading private clinics that the majority of their egg donors were ‘freeze and share’ donors. When I looked puzzled she explained that these were women in their twenties and early thirties who wanted to freeze their eggs for use at a time of their choosing but who readily agreed to share some of the eggs they produce with women who needed egg donation now in order to start or add to their family. I didn’t enquire into the financial deal here and assume that some of the costs of egg vitrification were being offset by being willing to donate to others, but the counsellor seemed very clear that the young donors were only too happy to help others and this fits with some of the recent research that has been done with women egg-sharing as a way of off-setting the cost of IVF.
I have really mixed feelings about all this. Part of me is delighted that the news about the limited ‘fertility window’ in a woman’s life seems to be getting through to the younger generation and that women are really thinking about their future lives and fertility. Another part of me is concerned, like Dr. Gillian Lockwood who is quoted in the Sunday Times article that, “If 40 becomes a typical age for first birth, then there is a real possibility that the mother will not only have challenging teenagers to look after by her late fifties, while juggling a career, but her own parents may well be frail and in need of support themselves”. The dynamics of extended family life could change significantly…some say have already started to change…with people not becoming grandparents until they are well into their seventies and eighties and mostly beyond being able to make an active contribution to the lives of their grandchildren. As a reasonably new (and slightly elderly) grandmother myself I think this would be a very sad thing. Much better that women should start their family at a younger age but life just doesn’t seem to be going that way…
On the other hand egg preservation does allow women more real choice in their reproductive lives and will mean that celebrities and others can say with all honesty that they ‘just’ needed IVF in order to have their baby when they were 50. So often we read, as in last week’s Guardian, of women of this sort of age giving birth without acknowledging that an egg donor was needed for conception. Egg preservation could also mean an end to sad stories like those of the singer Bonnie Tyler in this week’s Guardian Family Section where she talked about postponing trying for a baby for the first time until 39, conceiving relatively easily but miscarrying at two and a half months and then not conceiving again. In my experience a MUCH more common story than being able to carry to term a baby that has been conceived after 40 or so.