The Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre in central London has been awarded the first UK licence to freeze human eggs. For about pounds 2,800, a woman under the age of 35 can have her eggs frozen by the clinic in the hope of using them years later if she decides to have a baby.
However, anyone buying the service will be taking a gamble, since the present licence only allows eggs to be frozen, but not to be thawed or fertilised because of safety fears. The hope is that a new licence allowing fertility treatment will be granted once regulators are satisfied that the technology is safe.
Freezing of sperm and of embryos is already permitted. Freezing eggs is mainly intended to offer a chance of motherhood to cancer sufferers likely to be made sterile by chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
However, the clinic says the service is open to any woman wanting to wait until she is past her fertile prime to start a family. "It means that couples in their late twenties or thirties could defer having a child until they feel better able to take on the responsibility, without fear that the biological age of the woman's eggs might lead to birth defects," said Mohamed Taranissi, the clinic's head.
Single women who had not yet found the right partner might want to freeze their eggs before the age of 35 "to preserve the prospect of parenthood for a future relationship."
Suzanne McCarthy, chief executive of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which licenses in-vitro fertilisation clinics, said freezing eggs raised no new ethical questions which were not also raised by freezing sperm or embryos.
"This is not about creating designer babies. The only question about the ethics relates to the welfare of the child."
She added that as a way of postponing child-bearing it had drawbacks. "This is a very expensive and uncertain way of having a baby. If a woman is worried about meeting Mr Right, it would be better to wait till he comes along and do it naturally."
Only a handful of clinics around the world are able to freeze, store and thaw eggs. So far frozen eggs have been used to produce about nine live births worldwide.
The clinic would extract about 10 eggs from a woman, half of which would be expected to survive the freezing process. The eggs are stored in liquid nitrogen. Mr Taranissi said at present they were not intended to be kept for more than five years, although this may be extended in the future.
Once thawed, the idea is for individual eggs to be fertilised by microinjection with sperm before being implanted into the womb. But the HFEA is not allowing this to happen yet.
Ms McCarthy said: "The licence we granted is for freezing of eggs only. It does not allow them to be used for treatment. That might change if we get enough scientific evidence and information proving that the technique is safe."