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The grim truth about egg-freezing

Nothing can freeze time. Credit: Getty

April 30, 2024 - 11:50am

This week, Vox correspondent Anna North reported on the “failed promise of egg-freezing” in a deeply researched piece exploring the high hopes and uncertain returns of this fertility preservation method.

To make a long story short: the egg-freezing industry sold women a false sense of security at a high price, with many shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in the hopes of having a child someday — but not today.

The advertising pitch for freezing your eggs is seductive: you can (and will) have everything. You don’t have to choose between having a career and having a family. You don’t have to settle for a man. One company promised that freezing eggs could “freeze time” itself.

But nothing can freeze time, and even the prospect of simply freezing eggs turned out to be more complicated in practice than in theory, as North points out: “The process can fail at many points […] the ovaries may not produce enough eggs, the eggs may not survive the freezing process, they may not fertilize properly, or the fertilized embryos may not implant in the uterus.” As a result, some women saw their investments turn to nothing and found themselves scrambling for alternatives. Some missed the opportunity to ever have the families they dreamed of having.

The rise of egg-freezing in the 2000s and early 2010s splashed across the covers of magazines, inviting women to “imagine a world in which life isn’t dictated by a biological clock”. Tech companies added egg retrieval and storage to their employee benefits packages — a coveted “perk”. Young women spoke of being “freed” from the pressure of balancing dating, work, and their aspirations for a family.

But when it comes to these kinds of stories — entrants in what we might call the “wouldn’t it be great if…?” genre — the comedown is always quieter than the run-up. Instead of cover stories, the comedown from the egg-freezing craze involved a slow accumulation of discouraging studies buried in academic journals and a quiet procession of women with disappointed hopes. “It was really positive for me,” one of the women Vox interviewed said. “Until I tried to use them.” The covergirl of Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2014 story—“Later, Baby: Will freezing eggs free your career?”— ended up with 11 unfrozen eggs and no viable pregnancy. She ended up relying on an egg donor.

Looking back, the vogue for freezing eggs seems like yet another example of the ways we keep trying to escape the constraints of being human generally and being female specifically. If only women could be more like men, welcoming children late in life! The inconvenient realities of women’s bodies keep losing out to a way of thinking that still cannot reckon with sex difference — that sexual and reproductive “liberation” for women might look very different from sexual liberation for men.

As North puts it, egg-freezing has “done little […] to materially change women’s lives”. In fact, egg-freezing may be a glossy distraction from what women actually need to live out their reproductive hopes: suitable life partners, social support for those who decide to go it alone, and the ability to interrupt one’s career without killing it.


Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.

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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
18 days ago

Never fear, they’ll soon be able to have a baby by a surrogate transwoman with an implanted uterus so nil desperandum.

Now, where did I put that turkey baster?

William Shaw
William Shaw
18 days ago

Let’s just hope that the half of women who, by the end of this decade, will never have a child are the half who never wanted one in the first place and that their careers and cats satisfy their needs.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
18 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

The 13 upvotes will give William the very outdated satisfaction of thinking that all women want children. Whether they do or they don’t should be their decision…. Right or wrong. As is their decision to have cats. Am so super lucky to have a husband who loves animals.

David Morley
David Morley
18 days ago

Have your cats been neutered, or will they be providing the future generations of cats we will so desperately need?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

My two girls are still not sure whether to have a litter or just keep their slave for themselves.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
18 days ago

I agree with you it’s a woman’s choice about whether she wants them or not. My only concern is that many women who haven’t got kids say they do want them, and even those with kids tend to say they’d have more if they could afford it.
Nobody wants to go back to the days where women were just baby machines, but we also need to make it easier so those women than do want kids can churn more out if that’s what they want

David Morley
David Morley
17 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I think the “baby machines” thing has more to do with contraception. Nobody actually thought of women like that. The evidence seems to be that most women set out wanting to have children, as you say, but things get in the way.

Perhaps feminism needs to switch its focus to what women actually want, rather than what they “should” want. We could then look at how women’s lives can be made richer and more fulfilling, consistent with the desire to have children, and the need to produce the next generation.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
15 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

You make it sound as though those pesky feminists are standing on street corners threatening and coercing women to follow their cunning plans. Women can and do follow their own paths and make up their own minds about what they want to do with their lives. You may have missed it but there have been and are movements, headed by women, who actively campaign(ed) against feminists. Heard of Mary Ward or Phyllis Schlafly? Surely, what is needed is better childcare provision for women who want to work but also want families. which is something feminists call for.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
18 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Who knows what proportion of women will want children at some point?

While this comment is rather “scram yer eyes out”, women (and men) are clearly not well served by ignoring biology.

David Morley
David Morley
18 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I really did see a woman recently at a supermarket checkout – all she was buying was several cans of ready made gin and tonic and some cat food!

David Morley
David Morley
18 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

cats

I think the modern term is fur babies.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
6 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I’m happy to say my career(s) and cats have done just that. 🙂 I feel grateful to not have had kids as I watch friends dealing with young adult children who are gender dysphoric, depressed, ADHD, adrift relationally and professionally, and otherwise struggling. Despite their efforts at support, these issues seem to persist, sometimes for the lifetime of the parents.
Conversely, my cats have, over the years, seemed remarkably well-adjusted, for which I can take no credit, and feel only gladness.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
18 days ago

It’d be interesting to have some data about the percentages of those who’ve taken the ‘frozen egg’ route; how many have conceived and given birth, how many have tried but failed, how many who didn’t bother in the end. Perhaps also: how many had eggs frozen then simply found the right partner and conceived naturally.
Without this data, writing that some women will (inevitably) be disappointed fails to really get to grips with the issue. The article itself is worthwhile and well-written, and Elizabeth Mondegreen’s contributions to Unherd are always useful but the realities of biology and reproductive science can’t just be left to conclusions based on feelings alone; indeed, that’s the takeaway message.

Danny D
Danny D
18 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

My 33yo sister is thinking about having her eggs frozen, so I read the article looking for numbers, and then the article just… ended. Yeah, what the hell?

Jo Jo
Jo Jo
18 days ago
Reply to  Danny D

Relative had eggs frozen, in the end only a couple were viable, result a delightful child, very fortunate as it seems many fail. Also worth noting sperm counts decline with age, so if both parents in say early 40s could be double concern.

J Bryant
J Bryant
18 days ago
Reply to  Danny D

Have you read the original, much longer, Vox article on which Mondegreen’s short piece is based? The link is in the first line of the Mondegreen article.

Kat L
Kat L
18 days ago
Reply to  Danny D

My advice is to get off the stick and find a suitable mate that shares her values. It’s got to be a number one priority at that age. See my above comment regarding my experience.

T Bone
T Bone
18 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

The old Empiricism vs Rationalism debate. I’m not necessarily criticizing your opinion. Its rational but I would argue that there are a few problems with the “data” questions.

First, will small scale data at a few clinics produce a representative sample (accuracy). If not, will large scale studies produce a better sample or they will they fail to consider sufficient variables. Or worse yet, will they be polluted with bias? Because bad statistics are worse than no statistics.

Maybe you could get good statistics if certain questions are concrete enough. Your first set of question seems like it could plausibly be quantified with relative accuracy. The second portion about those later conceiving naturally probably couldn’t since many people stop participating in survey questions once their own interests are resolved.

If the data is insufficient than rational assumptions have to be made. We know that women have been encouraged to put family planning on hold in order to have a career. We know the process of IVF is extremely expensive and we know that many cases don’t achieve birth. On another level, we also have bigger questions about whether the practice itself elevates or degrades human relations.

I don’t claim to have the answers. Its complicated and personally dependent on moral convictions but if data can’t really guide decisions than rational perceptions might be the best thing we have.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
18 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

All good points regarding the validity of data, where available (another comment suggests there is some data, not included in the article).
The moral question is another debate entirely from the main issue within the article which revolves around the disappointment of expectations for those who’d had eggs frozen simply in order to get on with their careers, There are of course, other reasons, such as having them frozen prior to receiving cancer therapy.
If a woman manages to have a child after having eggs frozen then i can’t see why this should be debated in terms of the ‘elevation’ or ‘degradation’ of human relations. It would be wrong to make a blanket assumption that the child incurred any harm as a result of being conceived that way; far more harm comes to children conceived in the age-old way whose parents are less than loving, or in some way deficient in parenting. If one were to use the argument that children conceived following the storing of eggs (or sperm) is not ‘moral’ due to some potential absence during their upbringing, the same argument could be applied to any child with an ‘absence’ due to deficient parents, and that becomes a reductive argument.

Kat L
Kat L
18 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Reproductive assistance is a money drain and is most successful with eggs from -young- donors. Having spent $$$ and a decade going this route with my own eggs one has to only seek out those of us who’ve gone through it to know the facts. We are doing young women a disservice by keeping truths from them…mainly due to the influence of feminists.

R Wright
R Wright
18 days ago

If women trusted large corporations to have their interests at heart then they were absolute fools.

Kat L
Kat L
18 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

It’s more trusting feminists than corporations imo…

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
15 days ago
Reply to  Kat L

You’d trust large corporations? Well I never…

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago

Why would we want to be liberated from our natural biology? Plenty of time for that when we’re dead..

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
18 days ago

Caveat emptor. The market only serves itself.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
18 days ago

I have often thought that Western society has it arseways when it comes to women and careers. Egg-freezing is the epitome.
Wouldn’t it be better instead if women in their twenties and thirties stayed at home and had babies while their menfolk went out to work and and to build up their careers?
Hear me out…
The same women in their forties and fifties could then to go college and to work while the menfolk stayed at home and raised up the children who would now be that bit older. Or the menfolk could continue in work. Either way.
There is a lot that could be said for this arrangement in terms of female empowerment, cutting out sexual harassment in the workplace, and general work-life balance.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago

Would require being able to survive as a family on one income. Sadly seems a thing of the past.

Jo Jo
Jo Jo
18 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

And not only that, sometimes a further part-time job evenings & weekends too.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
18 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

It should be an aspiration for society and individuals

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
18 days ago

With the ability to work and learn from home, I think couples could find better ways of having families, nice incomes and, even, fulfilling work.

I heard an old interview with Christopher Hitchens. His with had recently had a baby and he said that he didn’t want his wife to work; she could if she wanted to but shouldn’t feel that she had to. The interviewer was horrified. But, he was just say he wanted her to have more freedom and he would do he could to support her.

That seems to me a very honourable position. What women go through for much of their lives so that they can perform the miracle of child birth is remarkable. It is men’s duty to enable the comfort of a family and support the freedom of the mother. This means the absolute opposite to chaining a woman to the kitchen sink.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago

That sounds great! The little girl who dreams of being a doctor would only be in her fifties or sixties when she would finally realize that dream.

Kat L
Kat L
18 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Well nothing wrong with that but if she wants marriage and babies her best prospect is in her twenties. Her eggs don’t give a crap about her dreams and aspirations.

David Morley
David Morley
17 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Nobody is talking about having children being compulsory. But we should tell women the truth.

Also can we stop the “little girl dreams” bit. Children are not good judges of what they really want, and have no idea of the trade offs involved.

Anna
Anna
18 days ago

That assumes women in their twenties married to men the same age have husbands willing and able to support a family. That is a thing of the past.

David Morley
David Morley
17 days ago
Reply to  Anna

Why do you think that is?

Anna
Anna
17 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Why? Work is all-consuming, particularly here in the US. No one has time for children in the first decade of their careers. Dating is different, all online now, lots of choices, no need for commitment. Expectations for material success before having kids have risen, while such expectations have become harder to meet as property prices in desirable areas have increased dramatically. My parents’ model of professional man with one job his entire life while my equally smart mother stayed home and raised 3 kids in their affordable suburban house in doesn’t exist anymore, certainly not in the Bay Area where I was raised.

Oh, I forgot the cost of a college education and student debt. I paid $1400/year for law school at UCLA. Without looking it up, I believe it’s now over $70,000.

Isabel Ward
Isabel Ward
17 days ago
Reply to  Anna

It seems you live in or near San Francisco probably one of the worst places currently in the US to achieve such an outcome.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
18 days ago

As Andrew Marvel put it to his Coy Mistress “at my back I always hear times winged chariots hurrying near”. Sadly the marvels of modern science have only given a chance to escape the onrush of time. Carpe diem is still the order of the day.

I say this as one who married late and whose wife was thwarted of of the chance of adding a daughter by the premature arrival of the menopause. Better to have children young when youthful energy is at it’s height than rely on the dubious promise of scientific postponement.

William Brand
William Brand
18 days ago

Women have one prime duty to the species. That duty is reproduction. Anything else is selfish and must be forbidden.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
18 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

That’s one more duty than you fulfil

Kat L
Kat L
18 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

A bit crass but essentially correct. You can’t expect to take and take from society and not invest back into it by providing for the future of it. Oh, an invading army is at the border? Doh! Not enough soldiers were birthed to defend it.

William Brand
William Brand
18 days ago

A better system might be embryo freezing. The problem is that a woman’s 20-year-old mate may not be her husband at 50 when she retires and is expected to pay for someone else’s child.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
17 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

What psychopath wants their first kid at 50?

David Morley
David Morley
18 days ago

Not so different to the trans idea – with enough money and enough technology nature will bend to suit you. After all why should nature have the hubris to stop you fulfilling your dreams.

jane baker
jane baker
17 days ago

It’s 1970 and 15 year old me is subject to the world picture we are all subject to from whatever media presents life to us. In this world picture some vociferous campaigners with their cries amplified by the popular media of the day said boys and girls are physically EXACTLY the same. Just a few different bumps here and there.
This made sense to me as I liked gardening which in the milieu I grew up in was something boys did. Girls danced round their handbag or something. Now it’s 2024 and Women’s football is mainstream. And it’s being revealed that the physiological differences in men and women’s bodies got A LOT.deeper than a few bumps. Not enough research has been.done into women’s bodies cry the campaigners. Women need smaller,lighter footballs than the men. In fact they need differently constructed footballs. Women are more subject to a particular muscle injury at the knee that men rarely get. Men have a denser body mass,which explains why a weedy guy half your size can nevertheless open that jam jar with one twist.
Women got conned big time. And they bought all that nonsense. In 1970 the married women worked for “extra,pin” money. So they could have a luxury.bathroom,the nicest car in their road,or that exotic foreign holiday in Benidorm. Now if both don’t work,in grinding necessity,there goes the mortgage,or the rent,or even the weeks grocery shopping. How is that BETTER than in my Grandma’s day?

Anna
Anna
17 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

Women of that time were unfulfilled. My mother had ambitions and an Ivy League education. She married my father and we moved to follow his career and hers was sacrificed. She raised 3 kids and volunteered, like many women of her time and social class. After she died I found the book she was working on in a box in the basement.

Not that it’s all been rosy for me, but I’ve had a good career as has my sister. However, we have one child between us. Our brother has two, and a wife who stays home.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
6 days ago

” ,,the vogue for freezing eggs seems like yet another example of the ways we keep trying to escape the constraints of being human …” Exactly. Attempting an end run around nature is almost always a bad idea. For all of us, life is, in fact, dictated by a biological clock, and this is particularly true for women who wish to have a healthy baby without endangering themselves. We are well advised to accept and respect both the joys and constraints of our innate, embodied experience.
Thanks for this piece.