MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block. Facebook and Apple created quite a buzz this week, but it wasn't because of a new smart phone or new privacy disclosure. It was over a new employee benefit. They are covering the cost of egg freezing.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Facebook already offers this and Apple will begin its coverage in January. They're thought to be the first big companies to cover the procedure for elective use. In a moment, the implications or not in the workplace.
BLOCK: But first, the science. Until recently, freezing a woman's eggs was reserved mainly for those facing infertility as a result of cancer treatments like chemotherapy.
NPR's Patti Neighmond reports that advances in technology have made freezing eggs easier and more successful.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Doctors had the technology to freeze human eggs over a decade ago, but it just didn't work very well.
RICHARD PAULSON: Everybody figured there was something wrong with them. After the freezing, you couldn't get them to fertilize.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. Richard Paulson directs the fertility program at the University of Southern California. He says in the last few years the likelihood of producing a healthy baby from frozen eggs has dramatically increased.
PAULSON: I think it'd be fair to say that the aha moment came when someone figured out that you could bypass the hardened egg shell - this is what happens during egg freezing, is that the egg shell actually freezes - and then you can bypass that by simply injecting the sperm into the egg.
NEIGHMOND: Then researchers figured out how to freeze eggs so rapidly that quality was maintained on the spot.
PAULSON: Liquid nitrogen is -196 degrees Celsius and at that temperature, there's no biological activity. So it's really kind of a state of suspended animation.
NEIGHMOND: But a major caution - age still matters. The younger a woman is when she freezes her eggs, the better.
PAULSON: If a 30-year-old freezes her eggs and then comes back and uses them at the age of 38 or 40, she will still be getting pregnant with the eggs of a 30-year-old, which then have the concomitant lower risk of miscarriage, lower risk of down syndrome, et cetera.
NEIGHMOND: Egg freezing doesn't stop the biological clock, says Paulson. It just sort of pauses it, giving women the option to delay childbearing until they're ready. At Stanford University Medical Center, fertility specialist Valerie Baker says that while egg freezing is an exciting new option, it shouldn't be relied on to make family planning decisions.
VALERIE BAKER: We wouldn't want to have people think that this is a substitute for making family building decisions in a broader context. So meaning that it's not a guarantee that if a woman freezes her eggs that she is eventually going to be able to have a healthy baby from one of those eggs.
NEIGHMOND: It's more reliable, Baker says, for women to try to get pregnant at a younger age rather than bank eggs and hope to get pregnant later. Even so in vitro fertilization - IVF - either with fresh or frozen eggs boosts a woman's chance of getting pregnant at any age. But it's costly, both emotionally and financially. Many women will have to undergo the procedure - harvesting, freezing, thawing and fertilizing eggs - more than once. It costs about $10,000 to harvest eggs from ovaries and if the first effort fails then it can cost about $5,000 each time new eggs are thawed, fertilized and transferred to the uterus. And it costs about $500 a year to keep the eggs frozen.
But Baker says there's another caution.
BAKER: Not all women have the same biological clock. So some women are running out of eggs when they're in their late twenties and early thirties, whereas other women may still have reasonably good fertility into their mid-to-late thirties.
NEIGHMOND: So if possible it's still a better bet, she says, to get pregnant the old-fashioned way. Most insurance companies don't cover the cost of egg freezing, not even for medical reasons when a young woman's fertility is jeopardized by cancer. So the decision by some high-tech private companies to foot the bill is a significant development.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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