A woman walked into egg donor specialist Tertia Albertyn's office and told her: "But I don't even look 42. I am healthy, I eat well and exercise..." The woman was struggling to understand why, despite living a healthy lifestyle, she couldn't naturally conceive a child.
Albertyn, who says she has seen this often enough, calls it "the shock of time" -- when some women think they have unlimited time to naturally conceive and realise things are different. She tells HuffPost SA: "The cold hard truth is all our eggs have an expiry date."
While women are born with all the eggs they need -- about 2 million of them -- by the time they reach puberty, they are left with about 500,000. And every year it gets worse.
"Prospective parents, especially women, should know that their fecundity and fertility begin to decline significantly after 32 years of age," a US National Library of Medicine gynaecology study notes. This is why health practitioners recommend that women who want to naturally conceive, try do so in their twenties.
However, the lived realities of women in their twenties suggest something totally different. Documented is a rising trend of young, healthy women who are delaying childbearing to advance their education and careers, and perhaps see the world first, before they take on parental responsibility. Some want some form of relationship commitment before having babies, while others are simply not even sure they want to have kids. A number of these women are opting for procedures that can help delay childbearing, such as egg freezing.
This is to the applause of activists such as Professor Lebo Moletsane, who told HuffPost SA: "Women have a right to decide how, where and when choose to conceive." Moletsane believes methods like egg freezing, provide women with the necessary flexibility in planning motherhood, if and should they desire it.
Hollywood celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Sofia Vergara and Olivia Munn are also amongst those who have opted to freeze their eggs.
Even companies such as Apple and Facebook now offer to cover the costs of egg freezing for their female employees. "We continue to expand our benefits for women, with a new extended maternity leave policy, along with cryopreservation and egg storage," a statement from Apple read. The company said it wanted to empower women at the company "to do the best work of their lives as they care for their loved ones and raise their families."
Initially, freezing eggs was just experimental. It began as an option mainly offered to young women undergoing cancer treatment, which destroys fertility. Freezing their eggs then allowed the possibility of conception once they recovered. But access to the practice has changed.
Johannesburg-based gynaecologist Dr Sumayya Ebrahim told HuffPost SA that egg freezing was indeed gaining popularity, even in South Africa. The procedure though, is not as popular as it could be as it favours only the deep-pocketed, she believes.
Ebrahim sums up what she believes any woman considering this procedure in South Africa should know, and the costs that go with it:
Three things you need to know about the process:
- Timing is everything: the freezing of eggs is ideal between ages 30-32. That's because the younger you are, the better the quality of your eggs.
- The process can be tedious: it involves stimulating your ovaries to harvest the egg and this involves examinations, ultrasounds, blood tests, self-administered injections every two weeks you name it.
- More than one cycle may be needed: once there are enough eggs, they are removed from the ovary through the vagina. Approximately five to 15 are retrieved per cycle. About 20 are needed per pregnancy, so this is why more than one cycle may be needed. Once the eggs are removed, they are quality checked by an embryologist and the good ones are flash frozen via a process called vitrification.
The cost breakdown (2016 estimate costs):
- The freezing procedure costs about R28,000.
- Medication needed for ovary stimulation is about R13,000.
- Blood tests are about R5,000.
- There is an annual cost to keep the eggs frozen, which is just under R4,000.
- Lastly, ICSI (sperm physically injected into the egg) to conceive can set you back a hefty R45,705.
- This all adds up to more than R95,000
Albertyn says while she recommends technological advances such as egg freezing, women must not be mistaken in thinking it is a 100% insurance policy.
Problems may arise with the womb or the partner's sperm down the line.
"Education, education, education" is what's needed so women can make informed choices, Albertyn said.