MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
As more women have children in their thirties and into their forties, they're up against that age-old constraint, the biological clock. Now technology is dangling the possibility that women can stop that clock. As part of her series on making babies, NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on the small, but fast growing field of freezing women's eggs.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Two dozen women - all of a certain age - sit in folding chairs in a Manhattan office building. They balance cell phones and glasses of wine.
Dr. ALAN COPPERMAN (Reproductive Medicine Associates): Hi, nice to meet you all, thank you for coming out tonight...
LUDDEN: Alan Copperman is with Reproductive Medicine Associates. He's headlining this seminar on how to take control of your fertility. He wastes no time laying out this harsh reality: By the time a woman hits her 40's, 90 percent of her eggs are abnormal. The chances of a typical 40 year old getting pregnant in any given month: 10 percent. Unless - she gets pregnant with her younger eggs, eggs she's frozen years before.
He explains the procedure, introduces someone who's gone through it, and takes a flurry of questions, questions I'm not allowed to record because - it's clear from the many who don't want to speak with me - this is an emotional and private decision. The session wraps up in about an hour.
(Soundbite of applause)
LUDDEN: Women crowd a counter to set up appointments with Copperman's clinic, which offers egg freezing. Sally Montgomery is among the youngest here, and most upbeat. Her mom had trouble conceiving, so she wants to be pro-active. But....
Ms. SALLY MONTGOMERY: I'm 31, your typical New Yorker, I'm single, like, I'm bouncing around. And I'd like the opportunity to have a family, and so I just figured, why not? I mean, I don't think it's a guarantee but it's a nice insurance policy, and I think it takes some of the pressure off.
LUDDEN: Others, though, slip out quietly. One 40-year-old says she wishes she'd learned about egg freezing earlier. Esther Montoro, a 37-year-old photographer, looks a little stunned.
Ms. ESTHER MONTORO (Photographer): I think it's fantastic, but I think it's so incredibly expensive.
LUDDEN: The whole process - a week of hormones, the procedure to collect the eggs - runs $12,000 to $14,000. And since it takes 10 to 20 eggs for a reasonable shot at success, some may need to do this several times. Plus there's annual storage fees. Then, when you're ready to use your eggs, you'll need in-vitro fertilization, another pricey procedure. All told, costs can easily exceed 40 grand. Money Montoro doesn't have.
Ms. MONTORO: And I guess there's a big assumption that most women that need to do this, it's because they're career, successful, rich women - and I'm not!
LUDDEN: This is not lost on Dr. Copperman. In his office, high above busy Madison Avenue, he says he hopes the procedure becomes easier and cheaper. Still, he says, freezing eggs offers many women the biggest game changer since the birth control pill 50 years ago.
Dr. COPPERMAN: Women began to have reproductive choices, they got to decide when not to get pregnant. This technology has the potential to help women decide when they can get pregnant.
LUDDEN: U.S. clinics have long frozen fertilized eggs or embryos. But eggs alone are more delicate, prone to damage. Over the years, egg freezing has been offered mainly to cancer patients facing radiation, but success rates were pretty dismal. Of late, though, the technology has exploded, thanks to scientific leaps, including a flash-freeze method called vitrification. In Copperman's lab, you can hear the sizzle as a tiny tube is plunged into liquid nitrogen.
(Soundbite of sizzling) TEXT: Dr. COPPERMAN: Snap freeze, snap thaw. And what's really impressive is that when it comes out, it comes out looking just like it went in.
LUDDEN: With this better survival rate, more and more clinics are offering what they call fertility preservation. And the early adopters are starting to come back and use their eggs.
(Soundbite of baby squealing)
Ms. ROBYN ROSS: Yeah, that's right.
LUDDEN: In a New York high-rise, eight-month-old Camden bounces in her baby saucer. She's here thanks to eggs her mom froze several years ago.
Ms. ROSS: My best friend and I made a pact together that at the age of 38, if we were both still single, we were going to have a child on our own.
LUDDEN: When the time came, Robyn Ross decided she wasn't quite ready for that. Instead, she froze 14 eggs. Within a year, she fell in love, and soon got married.
Ms. ROSS: Can you say da-da?...
LUDDEN: Her husband, Mark Cohen, says he wasn't at all put off by the fact that his new love had her eggs in the freezer. As it turned out, his sperm was weakened by earlier cancer treatment, so conceiving their baby in a lab was the perfect solution.
Mr. MARK COHEN: And this is our miracle baby. And we are one little happy family.
LUDDEN: Ross has already evangelized to her little sister.
Ms. ROSS: I made her promise me that if she's still single by the age of 32 she would freeze her eggs and she promised to. I mean, the younger the better.
LUDDEN: Now, before you run out to a fertility clinic, there is a big note of caution. Dr. Eric Widra is with the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which sets industry guidelines. The society still considers egg freezing experimental.
Dr. ERIC WIDRA (Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology): If the question were just, does egg freezing and thawing work to achieve a pregnancy, I think we're close.
LUDDEN: But Widra says only 1 to 2,000 babies in the world have been born using frozen eggs. So far, they're fine, no abnormalities. Still, he'd like a larger-scale, longer-term track record. It's not clear when - or if - a big-scale study might happen. But Widra says women should know - success rates will never be 100 percent.
Dr. WIDRA: It's an insurance policy that you may or may not actually ever need. And it's an insurance policy that if you do need, may not pay out.
LUDDEN: And yet, Widra agrees, egg freezing has appeal if it can help avoid the anguish of infertility. He offers it to his own patients. So, what a concept. Put your eggs in deep freeze, and disconnect from that nagging biological clock. But until when? How old is too old to use your younger eggs?
Dr. GEOFFREY SHER: There should be guidelines, I think, that are more clearly defined.
LUDDEN: Geoffrey Sher runs a handful of fertility clinics, and is based in Las Vegas. He says many clinics suggest a cut-off of 50, the average age of menopause. After that, pregnancy can be riskier, and the large age gap raises complicated social issues. But the limit's tricky to impose. Dr. Sher remembers one couple who wanted to use donor eggs to conceive. He was 45, she - 55. Sher hesitated.
Dr. SHER: And she said, that's discriminatory. If my husband was my age and I was his age you wouldn't hesitate. And she had a point.
LUDDEN: The woman was healthy. And, the uterus doesn't decline like eggs do. In some cases, it can actually be coaxed back into working order. Sher's ethics board said, OK.
Dr. SHER: And she went ahead and had a baby at 57 years of age without any problems whatsoever. And I get a postcard from them at Christmas every year.
LUDDEN: The bigger challenge, say Sher and others, is reaching out to younger women, getting them to take action before it's too late. They envision a time when society considers freezing your eggs an act, not of desperation, but empowerment.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
KELLY: This is NPR News.