Why freezing embryos is the way forward, not eggs

When Briallen Hopper decided to freeze her genetic material, she didn’t anticipate how it would affect her attitude about romantic love

Friday 17 May 2019 16:05 BST
Freezing embryos (an egg plus donor sperm) is the latest fertility treatment
Freezing embryos (an egg plus donor sperm) is the latest fertility treatment

It’s been over a year since I froze eight embryos: my eggs plus donor sperm. As Mother’s Day approached, I called to check up on them.

“They’re fine,” the guy at the lab told me, in the indulgent voice of a scientist who is used to humouring potential parents. “They’re happy where they are, just hanging out.”

I pictured them hanging out in the freezer in New Haven, Connecticut: eight microscopic cell clusters, five “boys” and three “girls”, each biopsied and tested for chromosomal abnormalities; rated for viability; separately packaged and labelled with a bar code; and immersed in a tank of liquid nitrogen.

Eight unique genetic blueprints. Eight hypothetical human lives.

It’s impossible to know the future, but sometimes you can make an educated guess. I’m a single, straight, cisgender 41-year-old woman, and I’m on the part of the chart where the gradual drop-off in fertility that happens in the late 30s turns into a steep precipice. Each month it becomes increasingly unlikely that I’ll meet someone and conceive a child with him in the conventional way. If I do end up having a biological child, odds are that child already exists in an early form in that freezer.

When I decided to freeze my genetic material, I hoped it would reduce my anxiety about ageing and fertility, and thankfully it has. What I didn’t anticipate was how it would affect my attitude about romantic love.

For most people, pairing off and having kids are linked. First comes love, and/or marriage. Then comes the baby in the baby carriage. For a long time, this was how I thought about love as well.

In my 20s and early 30s, the desire to have children with someone was a big part of what prompted me to fall in love and into relationships, as well as a big part of what made me feel stressed during my long stretches of singleness. My two long-term boyfriends were both men I thought of as potential parents, but they weren’t ready yet. After spending several agonising years with men who “wanted different things”, I started ruling out OkCupid possibilities who said they didn’t want kids. Then at some point the men who wanted kids started ruling me out; I was getting to be too old.

Frozen embryos weren’t my initial plan B. First I looked into adoption and egg-freezing, but both options were financially out of reach. Later I tried artificial insemination with donor sperm, but after a tough pregnancy loss I was told I would need to have surgery to hold onto a pregnancy, which would delay the process for many months. Ultimately my doctor and I agreed that it made sense for me to freeze embryos to buy myself some time for surgery and recovery – and to reduce the risk of future pregnancy loss through genetic screening. Since in vitro fertilisation was completely covered by my insurance, this decision made sense financially as well as medically.

Between then and now, a lot of things have delayed my path to parenthood. I had a cancer scare, followed by a second major surgery. I got a new job and moved to a new city. I went on a book tour. There’s been a lot to stress about, but one thing I haven’t worried over is finding a man.

Now that I have embryos in the bank, a romantic relationship seems less like a prerequisite for parenthood and more like an obstacle to it. I’m sure that somewhere in my city of 8.6 million people there are a few men interested in dating a woman in my reproductive situation. But outside of an especially far-fetched telenovela, the process of attempting to get pregnant with a donor-conceived embryo seems like too much hassle to try to combine with Tinder.

Even though I’ve been more or less happily single for years, for a lot of that time I still half-expected that my urge to become a parent would eventually push me into a relationship again. These days, finding a romantic partner seems both unnecessary and unimaginable. For the first time, my singleness feels not just fine but final.

For single straight women especially, extended fertility and extended romantic possibility are expected to go hand in hand – and often they do. This is a big part of why it’s so unusual for single women to freeze their embryos, and why it is common for doctors to discourage them from doing so. Owen Davis, associate director of in vitro fertilisation at Weill Cornell Medicine and past president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, writes that even if a single woman expects to become a single parent, he would still advise her to freeze eggs instead of embryos: “I would counsel that should her life plans change, she is somewhat ‘locked in’ by having created embryos with donor sperm should she plan a family with a future partner.”

Freezing my eggs helped me to get to where I am now, otherwise  I might not have told [my now-husband] that early on in our relationship how serious I was about having a child

Mary, recipient of egg freezing

When I spoke with women who had frozen their eggs, I could see Davis’s point. In contrast to embryo-freezing, egg-freezing often seems to align with romance. (Both women I spoke with asked to be identified by their first names to protect their privacy.)

Mary, a 41-year-old in the Bay Area, has an egg-freezing story with a rom-com-worthy meet-cute. She started dating her now husband when she was 39 and had just started the egg-freezing process. Even though they’d only just met online, he witnessed her daily hormone injections, and he cared for her after her egg retrieval.

“Freezing my eggs helped me to get to where I am now,” Mary says. “Otherwise I might not have told [my now husband] that early on in our relationship how serious I was about having a child, and even if I had told him he might not have believed me. But injecting myself in front of him did the communicating for me. There wasn’t any ambiguity about it.”

Mary’s boyfriend’s support throughout the process gave her a sense of what he’d be like as a partner and father: he was caring, comfortable having serious conversations, and unfazed by the dramatic changes that her body went through. Within two years, they married and had a child (conceived the old-fashioned way). Mary and her husband didn’t end up using her frozen eggs, but it didn’t matter; they’d already served their purpose.

Jackie, a 37-year-old in New York City, also had her first egg-freezing appointment just days before she met her now boyfriend. Like Mary’s partner, Jackie’s was supportive throughout the process. She credits her decision to freeze her eggs with “an almost immediate relief about future relationship prospects”, a feeling that allowed her to enter into her relationship with less anxiety and more openness. Though Jackie and her boyfriend haven’t yet decided whether they want to have kids together, Jackie isn’t worried about it. She told me that freezing her eggs was an “emotional snooze button” for her biological clock.

Mary’s and Jackie’s stories are somewhat unusual – most of us aren’t going to meet a new partner at the perfect moment to cheer us on during our egg-freezing injections! Still, even in less cinematic situations, the “emotional snooze button” of egg-freezing can open up romantic possibilities for women that might otherwise be foreclosed.

Unlike these women, for better and for worse, I’m no longer navigating my fertility in the context of a present or future relationship. But I still relate to the idea of an “emotional snooze button”. For me, though, what’s being snoozed is not just my biological clock but my romantic one.

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I no longer need a man to have a kid, and I plan to have a kid without a man. Sometimes this scares me, and sometimes it saddens me. But most of the time it’s a comfort. There are many things I miss about the men I’ve been with, but I definitely don’t miss the biological clock panic and deadline-driven dating. I’m also grateful not to be in limbo, with my decisions about how and whether to have children still indefinitely deferred. And here’s one thing I know for sure: regardless of whether I end up having kids, my days of looking for a man to make me a mother are behind me.

After I got off the phone with the guy at the IVF lab, I fantasised about calling him back and saying to him what Carrie Fisher says to Bruno Kirby, who plays her boyfriend in When Harry Met Sally: “Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again.”

I imagined him answering me in that reassuring voice: “You’re fine. You’ve got eight embryos. You will never have to be out there again.”

© Washington Post

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