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Fertility Procedure Freezes Eggs for Later Use
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Fertility Procedure Freezes Eggs for Later Use

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Fertility Procedure Freezes Eggs for Later Use

Fertility Procedure Freezes Eggs for Later Use
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Some fertility centers are now offering egg freezing to young women who want to put off motherhood. Because of uncertainties surrounding the procedure, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends against it.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In our personal health news this morning, we have two of the latest developments in fertility and contraception. Few issues affect women more, whether they're trying to conceive a child or trying to avoid it. First, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a service now offered by some fertility centers: egg freezing. It's a technique promoted to young women who want to put off motherhood.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

When Christy Jones looked around her classroom at Harvard Business School, she saw a lot of women just like herself, nearing 30 and single.

Ms. CHRISTY JONES: My fellow peers were really just beginning their careers at exactly the same time that the biological clock was at its peak.

AUBREY: In this career set of women putting off the start of family, Jones saw opportunity. She circulated an online survey asking classmates and other women her age what they might think of freezing their eggs, then thawing them out years down the road when they were ready to have a baby.

Ms. JONES: The results of that came back just so incredibly positive. Over 80 percent of the women responded that they would seriously consider freezing eggs.

AUBREY: So Jones started a company called Extend Fertility. A year and a half ago, she became its first client, freezing her eggs at the age of 33.

Professor BARRY BEHR (OB/GYN Department, Stanford University Medical Center): The first baby born from egg freezing was in 1986 and that was sort of a flash in the pan. It was a single event that was reported in the abstract, and then really nothing happened for almost 10 years after that.

AUBREY: Barry Behr is a professor in the OB/GYN department at Stanford University Medical Center. He's also the lab director for Huntington Reproductive Center which now offers egg freezing. He says a couple of things have happened in the last decade. For one, scientists in the US and Italy worked to improve egg freezing and fertilizing techniques. The second is that more women started asking about ways to extend fertility.

Prof. BEHR: We see many, many, many patients saying, `You know, I'm vegetarian. I jog every day.'

AUBREY: `Won't this help me stay fertile?' they ask. `Not likely,' Behr explains. Women are born with all the eggs they'll ever have, and as they age, so do their eggs.

Prof. BEHR: Most cells--the lining of your skin, the lining of your gut, your hair replenishes. Your eggs don't, and the ones that are left at 35 and 40 are the ones that are the least good. They're not dried out but they've just been exposed to more years of junk.

AUBREY: So egg-freezing operations say the best candidates to undergo the procedure are women in their late 20s and early 30s. The process requires them to take ovary-stimulating hormone medication for two weeks and then go through a one-day outpatient procedure where their eggs are extracted by a sonogram-guided needle. Jeffrey Boldt of Indiana University has overseen some of the earliest experiments in egg freezing conducted at Community Health Network in Indianapolis.

Mr. JEFFREY BOLDT (Indiana University): We've seen steady advances.

AUBREY: His center has frozen and then thawed the eggs of 46 women who then tried to conceive using in vitro fertilization. Nine of them have given birth, a success rate of about 20 percent. Experts caution these early experiments are not predictive of what might occur in future groups of women. So a reliable success rate is unknown. And Boldt says what's also unknown is whether babies born from a frozen egg will be at risk of birth defects. Currently of the 200 babies born from frozen eggs around the world, there's one known heart defect.

Mr. BOLDT: Although the early data is encouraging, you'd certainly need to have some, you know, larger number of babies born before you can make a statistical conclusion as to whether there's any effect on birth defects from egg freezing.

AUBREY: With these uncertainties, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends against the procedure. Dr. Marc Fritz is the head of the society's Practice Committee.

Dr. MARC FRITZ (American Society for Reproductive Medicine): The committee feels that the commercial offering of this form of treatment for women who are hoping to defer reproductive aging is premature and that the technology at this time is still experimental.

AUBREY: Fritz says the committee does endorse the procedure for women with cancer who face infertility as the result of treatment but not for healthy young women who are trying to delay motherhood.

Ms. NANCY KLEIN (Fertility Specialist, Seattle, Washington): I worry that it provides a false sense of security.

AUBREY: Nancy Klein is a fertility specialist in Seattle. She says the $12,000 procedure isn't practical for many young women. Statistically, she says women who are worried about finding the right mate in time to have a baby usually end up succeeding which, in fact, is what happened to Extend Fertility founder Christy Jones. Nine months ago, she got married and says she hopes to be able to conceive her first child naturally.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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