The ability to freeze eggs and preserve them for future family planning is gaining traction in India lately. While social stigma surrounding uncommon methods of conception continues, it can be uniquely empowering to postpone your potential motherhood, as well as pursue more immediate goals such as a fulfilling uninterrupted career.
Egg freezing in India: Is this the path to the future?
Sowmya Srinivasan is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Law honours from Tamil Nadu National Law University, Tiruchirapalli. They enjoy research and writing, and advocate for LGBT+ rights and mental health. They actively participate in debating, and when free, indulge in painting.
Women differ from men in their ability to reproduce. Born with a finite number of eggs for fertilization, women are often under pressure to manage their “biological clock,” as the quality and quantity of their eggs — necessary for a successful pregnancy — decrease over time. In particular, eggs are more prone to accumulating imbalances in the amount of DNA with aging, which hinders implantation and eventual pregnancy. Women in their early 20s are faced with unique stresses: societal and familial stigma, as well as a need to balance a successful career with a meaningful family life that may include children. Some women may want to preserve their option to reproduce without harming their near-term life goals, or delay that choice based on other personal considerations. With the advent of technology, this choice to delay motherhood is now possible.
An underexplored option is that of egg freezing, scientifically known as oocyte cryopreservation. The process involves extracting eggs from a woman’s body and freezing them for preservation in an egg bank. The frozen eggs can be later thawed and fertilised with a sperm in a lab, through a process known as in-vitro fertilisation. Egg-freezing is beneficial to women who want or need to delay childbearing in order to pursue educational, career or other personal goals, women diagnosed with cancer, and those with objections to storing frozen embryos (as is the case with traditional IVF). It enables women to preserve their fertility, thereby halting their biological clock.
This idea has gained traction in the corporate world. In 2014, Facebook and Apple offered to pay for the procedure of extraction and freezing of eggs for their female employees, and ever since, the ethics and viability of this option has been hotly debated.
The first human birth from a frozen egg was reported in 1986. The success of a live baby being born from a frozen egg is a mere 2-12%, according to the American Society For Reproductive Medicine. In order to maximise success, thus, doctors often recommend a large collection of eggs to be preserved. The age at which the eggs are collected also determine its health, and the potential of success in the future. However, babies born from frozen eggs are born healthy – the largest published study of over 900 babies from frozen eggs showed no increased rate of birth defects when compared to the general population.
Egg freezing is empowering, allowing women to expand their choices and preserve their fertility. Single women can particularly benefit from this process, as it allows for relative freedom to focus on other personal goals in prime childbearing years. The burden to trade off between the kinds of future women would like to explore is lifted, without having to make a time-sensitive compromise.
South Asia struggles with the lowest rates of female labor force participation, despite increases in female educational attainment. Research has shown that marriage and familial responsibilities often push women out of the labor force. While the social stigma surrounding egg freezing persists due to the conservative Indian family structures, there are some promising trends. More women are open to pursuing fulfilling careers, choosing to educate and empower themselves. In this scenario, enabling choices such as egg freezing can help relieve the stress of making the choice immediately, and should be encouraged by workplaces seeking to improve gender participation and diversity. Multiple celebrity endorsements have also led to much-needed discussions around the effectiveness of this process.
Affordability can be a key barrier, usually upwards of several lakhs. This includes testing, monitoring, medications and egg freezing, as well as an annual storage fee. There are additional fees for the egg thaw, fertilization and embryo transfer procedure Measures to make this process more accessible may be key to widespread adoption.
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