Can reproductive technology finally stop a woman’s biological clock?
Traci Radcliffe has always been the kind of woman to have it all. Smarts, looks, personality — and a jet-set career. “There are days when I’d be on a plane Monday morning and wouldn’t come home until Friday evening,” said Radcliffe, a sales account manager for a Fortune 200 company. “I’d be traveling all over the country.”
But there’s one goal this power woman hasn’t checked off her to-do list — have a baby. Not even when she married a well to do investment banker who urged her to quit her job and start a family. “I remembered thinking, ‘Why? Why would I do that?’” Radcliffe said. “I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom. I wasn’t ready to just give up my career and have kids.”
Or that’s what she thought until she turned 39 this year, and then there it was, that biological clock ticking in her ear. She’s still not quite ready to exchange her briefcase for a diaper bag. Radcliffe is a business success story, earning nearly half a million dollars a year. But now divorced, she needed a solution. She found the answer in Dr. John Jain, a reproductive endocrinologist who has dedicated his life to perfecting the delicate art of extracting and freezing human ovarian eggs.
“I really consider myself part of a social revolution,” said Jain of his job. “Emancipating and promoting a woman’s ability to choose how and, most importantly, when she’ll have a family.”
Jain is the founder of the Egg Freezing Center in Santa Monica, where, for $15,000, a woman can have her eggs extracted, frozen and saved for fertilization for as long as 10 years or more. “With today’s technology, an egg’s viability can really be indefinite,” Jain said. “We can freeze an egg for one year or 10 years — there’s no difference. The only question is the health of the mother. We’ve had women in their 50s carry a baby — as long as they’re healthy, they do just fine.”
That’s a huge leap forward in reproductive science, considering that just a decade ago, methods for thawing frozen eggs were so flawed that they were often too damaged for fertilization. “Sure, we could freeze the eggs,” Jain said, “but the question was, could we make a baby from them?” He said they literally suffered from freezer burn.
Today, eggs are dipped in liquid nitrogen, which has nearly eliminated the freezer-burn effect. Still, the technology isn’t perfect. At the Egg Freezing Center, an average procurement of 10 frozen eggs gives a woman about a 50 percent chance of giving birth to a baby. But compare that to the odds 10 years before, when doctors averaged about one birth for every 100 thaw-and-fertilization attempts. “As you can see, this is a critical scientific advancement,” Jain said.
While no formal international registry exists, industry experts estimate that worldwide fewer than 1,000 babies have been born from frozen eggs, with the first birth occurring just 22 years ago. Roughly 200 have been born in the United States, most within the past five years.
Eggs are removed using a needle, which passes into the vagina to retrieve, on average, 10 specimens per procedure. Patients are under anesthesia, experience no pain and are usually checked in and out in under two hours. But for two weeks beforehand, mommies-to-be must endure daily injections of pre-surgery hormones to the stomach, which they administer to themselves at home.
“That was freaky and weird,” said Jenny Hirsch, a single 38-year-old Jain patient recalling one afternoon when she nearly missed her dose. “They have to be done at the same time every day. One time, I literally pulled into a Carl’s Jr. parking lot and here I am, sitting in my car mixing up these little drugs for my shot.” The hormone shots caused some bruising and feeling a little bloated. She said the entire process was otherwise painless.
Most of Jain’s clients fall into the same category — mid-30s, sophisticated, highly educated, affluent and single. That profile fits Radcliffe perfectly. She explored egg freezing after a friend had the procedure done. “I just thought, ‘That’s it, oh my God! That’s what I want to do,’” said Radcliffe, a Manhattan Beach resident who wrestled with guilt pangs for letting time fly by without seriously contemplating the consequences of her work-all-the-time lifestyle.
“I’m just now slowing down enough to realize life isn’t always going to be about my work … This felt like a safety net.”
On November 22, 2008, Jain extracted 15 eggs from Radcliffe. “And all of a sudden,” Radcliffe sighed, “I don’t have to worry about it anymore. If it’s another five years before I’m ready to have kids, that’s OK.”
And all of a sudden, this businesswoman did something businessmen have been doing for ages … she started dating younger partners. “Why not,” she said. “I still feel like I’m 22. I feel like I have all the time in the world.”
BIOLOGICAL CLOCK SILENCED?
So could this be it? Has reproductive technology finally advanced enough to, at long last, crush the biological clock? Perhaps Jain and the handful of experts in his industry are doing more than helping women become moms. Perhaps they are simultaneously leveling the dating-game playing field, putting women on equal footing with their male counterparts, who have always been able to become parents well into their 50s and beyond. Imagine
— for a woman, no more rush to find Mr. Right before her proverbial expiration date — and for men, no more pressure to “commit” when his ladylove reaches a certain age.
“Oh yes, it certainly will take the pressure off,” said Steve Santagati, a self-described serial dater who runs the website Badboysfinishfirst.com and is the author of The Manual, billed as a how-to guide for women who love dating commitment-phobic men. “I think it’s a smart thing for women to do.”
It even gives women an answer for overly demanding parents who are anxious they may never see grandchildren, Santagati added. “To any parent who says, ‘Where are my grandkids?’ she can say, ‘Listen, I have a backup plan. Worst case, I can go to a sperm bank and I’m all set.’”
But he warns it could also be a turnoff for some men who might see it as too self-sufficient, especially if it’s done by a woman who is financially independent.
“It’s not fair, but it could be emasculating,” he said. “They don’t need us for money, to build a house, catch the food or now, even, to have a kid.”
But Nicholas Aretakis, author of Ditching Mr. Wrong, says the advantages for women are too great to fret over any dings to some male egos. “I think a guy who has his act together will respect the fact that a woman has taken control of her own destiny,” Aretakis said.
In fact, as Aretakis sees it, as more women opt for the procedure, stretching the biological clock has the potential to reduce divorce rates. It gives women the time to go out, be educated, conquer their careers, grow older and wiser … then pick a suitable partner. And to do it like men can — without racing against the clock.
“Some women in that upper 30s, early 40s age range get into that baby panic and, frankly, start to compromise,” Aretakis said. “They know they’re not with the ideal guy, but they say, ‘I’m running out of time.’ And they just do it — have kids and then realize they married the wrong guy. And then they’re headed for a divorce.”
WHAT HE SAYS
“ideally, I’d still rather do it the old-fashioned way,” admitted Travis Jabara, a 37-year-old businessman, single and deep into the Los Angeles dating scene. “But maybe it does take some pressure off, so I’m not feeling like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to jump into kids with this person right away.’ I know she’s got a backup plan.”
For that reason, Jabara was supportive when Radcliffe, his close friend, confided she was doing it. “It caught me off guard,” he said. “I wasn’t aware it was something she was even thinking of. But I think it’s great. Hopefully, she won’t have to use them. But if it comes to that, I know she’ll be glad she did it.”
William Dorris, a Long Beach executive, said he’s all for it. “My last relationship ended because she wanted kids and I wasn’t ready,” said Dorris, 39. “We only dated about five months, then she had a 38th birthday coming and all of a sudden all she could talk about was ‘Where is this going? I need to know, I want kids someday.’ The pressure killed us. But what if she had this in her back pocket? Who knows, it could’ve helped.”
Still, because egg freezing is, for now, an uncommon choice, many men are unnerved by the concept. And when a dating partner admits she’s had it done, the reactions aren’t always pleasant, noted Hirsch, who had the procedure done last May, shortly after she broke up with a longtime boyfriend.
“I had this one guy say to me, ‘Don’t you think you’re being kind of selfish? Do you really want to be 70 and chasing kids?’” Hirsch recalled. “Obviously, I wouldn’t wait that long. Plus, we live so much longer these days, we’re healthy much longer. And think of how many grandparents raise their grandchildren. I have this opportunity available to me, and I’m proud to take advantage of it.”
THE COST EFFECT
So if egg freezing is so empowering for women, why aren’t more ladies doing it? Because of the cost mainly. At $15,000 per procurement, plus another $600 a year for storage, egg freezing was almost out of reach for Hirsch, a fashion industry consultant who, despite doing well for herself, still didn’t have that kind of money lying around. Then an $8,000 federal tax refund check arrived in the mail. “And I told a friend who was with me at the time, ‘Oh my God, I can freeze my eggs with this! Now I have enough,’” Hirsch exclaimed. “My friend looked at me like I was crazy.”
Dr. Marc Fritz, chair of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, still bluntly points out that ovarian egg freezing technology is too new to offer firm answers. It cannot guarantee an older woman a child. “Women still need to be aware of the way their fertility declines with age and consider this when plotting the courses of their lives and careers,” he said in an American Society for Reproductive Medicine report on the pros and cons of elective egg freezing.
The report adds that live birth rates from eggs previously frozen are still “substantially lower than the live birth rate for embryos formed from freshly harvested eggs.” But the report also states that there are no significant health risks to women who undergo the procedure.
Although studies are still limited due to the newness of the technology, so far, babies born from frozen eggs are healthy and show no increased risk for congenital birth defects.
GET USED TO IT
But while the technology continues to advance, combined with good old fashioned girl talk as more and more women jump on board, ovarian egg freezing could become as common among women as Botox. In fact, Jain’s already set to open new clinics in Chicago, New York and Austin.
“We are among the first generation of women raised to believe they can do Whatever they want,” Jain explained. “And they are out there doing it. Unfortunately, their eggs aren’t going to wait.” Well, unless they freeze them, he added.
Hirsch reports that she’s found a guy who is more comfortable with her decision. Her latest date — age 27, by the way— was even enthusiastic. “When I told him, he said, ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome,’” she said. But if Mr. Right still hasn’t come along in another few years, she’s already considered her next move.
“Yes, I would have a baby alone,” she said. “I’m going to be a great mom, so why not? I can do it. I can do anything.”
If you think ovarian egg freezing might be the right choice for you, know the right questions to ask. Dr. John Jain of the Egg Freezing Center in Santa Monica suggests the following:[ 1 ] Ask not only how long the facility has been conducting ovarian egg extraction procedures, but how many eggs they have been able to Successfully thaw and fertilize. “Just because a doctor can freeze eggs does not mean they are experts in thawing and have experience with live births,” Jain said.
[ 2 ] Ask how many frozen eggs it takes, on average, for the clinic to produce a live birth. “Make sure you know how many eggs you will need to freeze at their clinic before you can expect to achieve a pregnancy,” Jain said. “They should say that from about 20 eggs, you will have a very good chance of getting pregnant.” Most specialized centers should have about a 30 percent to 50 percent live-birth success rate per batch (about 10) of thawed eggs.
[ 3 ] Find out the total cost for shots, egg extraction and storage. Some health insurers will cover the shots because they’re the same ones used for infertility treatments. But egg extraction and storage will be out-of-pocket expenses. The average cost runs about $12,000 to $15,000 for the extraction and from $400 to $600 per year for storage.
[ 4 ] Ask the doctors if they’ve published any articles in reputable medical journals on the topic of ovarian egg freezing, thawing and live birth rates. “If the doctor has been published on the topic, it means they are probably an expert in the field,” Jain said.