Dr Eeson Sinthamoney Consultant Obstetrician, Gynaecologist and Fertility Specialist
A sad fact of life is that biology is not feminist in nature. Women may have come a long way when it comes to attaining equal rights and becoming more independent, but human biology remains primordial. A woman’s peak fertility period is still in her late teens to her twenties – a time when she may not be ready to become a mother. By the time she is 35 (ironically the age when she may be ready to settle down), a woman’s chance of conceiving per month decreases by half. By age 45, natural fertility is reduced to only one percent.
Ah, but just imagine never having to worry about ‘baby panic’ or the biological clock counting down after hitting the big three-oh: being able to focus on establishing a career, working toward financial stability or emotional readiness. What’s more, if Mr Right is taking his time to show up, it’s no big deal – a lady can wait and not have to settle for less.
If that sounds great, well, these choices are now increasingly possible, thanks to advances in a procedure called egg freezing.
A woman may still have it all
Just like its name states, the procedure involves storing extracted eggs in a very cold environment. The very low temperature keeps the eggs in suspended animation, so that when they are thawed (even years down the road), they can be used to conceive a baby.
Fertility specialist Dr Eeson Sinthamoney explains that, traditionally, egg freezing is viewed as a method to preserve the fertility of women who are about to undergo chemotherapy or other forms of treatment that would affect their ability to produce healthy eggs in the future.
This is still true today, but egg freezing has evolved to become a solution for every woman who wishes to preserve her fertility.
The evolution is made possible because recent improvements made to egg-freezing technology have improved its chances of success.
Dr Eeson explains that, in the past, the freezing process could cause ice crystals to form in the eggs, damaging their structure and making them unusable when thawed.
This changed when a technique called vitrification was developed recently. The technique freezes the eggs very rapidly in order to prevent ice crystal formation. “The eggs can survive better because there is less damage,” Dr Eeson says. As a result, the success rate of egg freezing has improved tremendously. Dr Eeson describes this development as a ‘game-changer’ when it comes to preserving a woman’s fertility.
There’s still a catch
Unfortunately, there’s never a foolproof solution. Dr Eeson notes that there are many other factors determining the odds of success.
For example, the eggs that were harvested may already have some abnormalities in them that prevent a successful pregnancy. “The best time for egg freezing to take place is when the woman is in her late twenties to early thirties,” Dr Eeson says. Any later and it may be harder for the fertility specialist to extract enough healthy eggs for future use. This is because a woman is born with only a fixed number of eggs, which decreases as she grows older, and the eggs may also contain more abnormalities as time goes by.
Also, some eggs may be more susceptible to damage compared to others. Fertility specialists do not have a reliable way to ensure that all harvested and frozen eggs are normal or will be able to withstand the freezing process. Hence, there is no guarantee of a healthy pregnancy.
Freezing embryos? Dr Eeson points out that a frozen embryo has a higher chance of resulting in a successful pregnancy compared to a frozen egg. However, the freezing of embryos raises a few issues. One, this may not be an option for an unmarried woman. Two, the freezing of an embryo raises ethical concerns as not all frozen embryos will eventually be used and the unused ones would have to be discarded as a result.
What is the procedure like?
- The first step is always a consultation, during which the fertility specialist will review the procedure thoroughly with the client. The specialist will also discuss the risks and address any concerns the client may have.
- The fertility specialist will then conduct a pre-screening test, called the ovarian reserve testing. This is a simple blood test, usually taken on day three of the menstrual cycle, in which the blood sample is used to measure the levels of anti-Müllerian hormone present. The results will give the fertility specialist a good idea of the woman’s ovarian reserve, which is the number of eggs remaining in her ovaries.
- Once all is in order, the client will receive fertility injections to stimulate the production of a large number of eggs.
- When the time is right, the fertility specialist would retrieve the eggs while the woman is under deep sedation. This is done using a needle under the guidance of an ultrasound.
- The eggs will then be frozen. Special chemicals called cryoprotectants may be used to prevent ice crystal formation.
The entire procedure would take about 10 to 14 days, and would not disrupt the woman’s normal routine much, says Dr Eeson.
For a reasonable annual fee, the fertility centre will store the eggs until they are needed.
Frequently asked questions
- How long can the eggs keep?
They can keep for a long time, Dr Eeson says. In fact, the actual limiting issue is the age of the woman when she wants to be a mother. Most fertility specialists would prefer that the woman uses her frozen eggs before she turns 50, as pregnancy at age 50 and above has its share of potential complications.
- What happens if the frozen specimens end up missing or damaged?
Consent forms will have to be signed before any procedure takes place to define what the fertility centre will and will not be held accountable for. Generally, the fertility centre will not be held accountable for any damages that are caused by what’s known as ‘acts of God’: natural disasters and other events that cannot be avoided by any amount of foresight or precautionary measures. If you suspect that the fertility centre has been negligent, you should consult a lawyer for further action.
What happens if the fertility centre goes out of business? What will happen to the frozen eggs?
To the best of Dr Eeson’s knowledge, there are currently no laws or regulations in Malaysia that set out the course of action required when a fertility centre closes shop. To date, no one in Malaysia has had to face such a situation.
Normally, an ethical fertility centre will make arrangements for another fertility centre to take custody of its frozen specimens. Perhaps the best course of action is to ask the fertility centre about this beforehand, as each centre may have its own contingency plan for such a situation.