25 Oct 2015

'Women given false hope about IVF'

3:50 pm on 25 October 2015

Freezing your eggs is a hot topic for women in their thirties, and more of them are doing it. But is the IVF industry giving women false hope about their real chances of having a baby?

A macro photo showing in vitro fertilisation.

A macro photo showing in vitro fertilisation. Photo: 123rf

An increasing number of women are taking up the opportunity of freezing their eggs to be used later, as a kind of motherhood insurance.

But some doctors are warning that these women, mainly in their thirties, are being misled, and being encouraged to freeze their eggs when there is little chance of success.

One of the world's leading IVF researchers, Lord Professor Robert Winston, said women were being given false hope.

'It's very easy, unfortunately, to prey on the anxieties of people,' Professor Winston said.

'Prey is a sightly emotive word, but it's what, in fact, effectively we may be unconsciously doing in our trade.'

One woman who has decided to freeze her eggs is Jane. Her marriage broke down when she was in her mid-thirties, and her hopes of having a baby with it.

"This was a really difficult time. [I was] very emotional, very forlorn and very hurt that I had wasted probably what was the best years of my fertility in a relationship that didn't result in having much left over other than a broken heart," she said.

"My former partner and I had been planning a family, which we had talked about it. In all honesty we were ... a year or less than a year, six months away, at the end of the relationship from starting a family. That was our plan.

"I remember thinking, 'I've invested 12 years of my life in this relationship ... I've been left for somebody who is in the prime of their fertility-a younger woman, unfortunately'."

A few years later, at 38, Jane, still single and childless, decided to freeze her eggs.

"For me I would be content with the idea of saying, I at least tried ... I am intrinsically an optimistic and hopeful sort of person," she says.

While Jane understood there were no guarantees, it was hard to come by hard data on what her real chance was of having a baby by freezing her eggs.

At an information session organised by Melbourne IVF- one of the city's largest clinics - a speaker cautioned that the treatment was costly.

"The cost is just under $10,000. It's not cheap, but when we think about all those other things we spend a lot of money on it is something that most of my patients say to me they think it was a very worthwhile investment," the speaker said.

"It means they can go on a date without harassing their date about whether he or she is interested in babies down the track."

She said that, generally speaking, women should aim to freeze 10 of their eggs to have a reasonable chance of getting pregnant - what she calls the magic number.

"We do estimate for every 10 eggs we collect there's a reasonable chance of pregnancy-we have this magic number 10 that we aim for," she said.

But there was no magic number, and many doctors now worried that women were being given false hope because of statements like these.

Professor Winston led the team that pioneered IVF treatment in the UK. He's become outraged about the way his peers have touted the success of egg freezing.

"If you measure success by the eggs which look normal down a microscope, or which fertilize, that is of no help to the patient or to the woman who wants to have a baby," he said.

"The key thing that she wants is a live birth of a healthy baby. She doesn't want a thawed egg, she doesn't want a fertilized egg, and she certainly doesn't want a miscarriage."

He believed that women were being deceived.

"Women start to get very worried and frightened by about the age of 36, 37, when they think, 'I haven't managed to find a partner, or I'm not really in the position to have a baby yet'," he said.

"By this time it's probably too late in any case to have any real chance of freezing eggs successfully."