By Professor Marcia C. Inhorn
Appeared in BioNews 1030
Women are electing to collect and freeze their eggs in the hope of preserving fertility for the future. A common assumption is that this is to allow time to become established in a career but, in fact, only around two percent of the women we interviewed did so for that reason.
For most women it was the lack of a partner they wish to parent with that drove them to freeze their eggs. But that doesn’t mean that men are excluded from the process.
We found that male partners, ex-partners, friends, fathers, brothers and even judges played a role in about two thirds of cases.
In a binational study, published in Human Fertility and presented in Edinburgh last week at Fertility 2020, 150 women in the USA and Israel were asked about their experiences with egg freezing. Most of these women were already established in a career and were high-fliers in business, the health sciences and other chosen professions.
In our late 30s, which is the age at which many of these women chose fertility preservation, women’s fertility begins to drop rapidly. So, this was very much a case of either freezing eggs now or accepting that having a baby in the future might be especially difficult.
About a third of the cohort were going through fertility preservation alone or with support from female relatives and friends, but for the rest, men were providing more than a dozen types of support, which were grouped into four categories: instrumental; financial; physical; psychological.
Support from men: Some male support happens during the decision-making process. Men helped to research fertility preservation and found useful information on egg freezing for their female partner, family member or friend.
There could be financial support from a father or father figure, something that was found to be very common in the Israeli group.
Brothers sometimes provided emotional support to their sisters undergoing elective egg freezing, bringing a curated music playlist, or making jokes and providing distraction to make egg collection more comfortable.
There was also male support that was important after egg collection, which includes a general anaesthetic. The majority of clinics require that a patient is accompanied home after the procedure.
In a handful of cases a male judge might mandate a man to pay for egg freezing as part of a divorce settlement.
Why are women remaining single? It is heartening to hear these stories of partnership and support outside of a romantic relationship. But it does also raise the question of why these women struggle to find a partner to parent with. In fact, even in cases where women were in a relationship (either new or long standing) only a small number went on to marry their partner with most, ultimately, splitting up.
Some women related their partnership problems to the prevalence of so-called ‘Peter Pan syndrome’ among men. Women find a lot of men their own age too immature or unready to parent. It may also be down to demographic changes.
In the USA there are now four women for every three men in higher education. And once this education is completed women tend not to want to ‘marry down’ and partner with a man who has a lower level of educational achievement.
When the cohort was asked about relationships, some also said that they felt that men their age or older were looking for younger female partners. They thought that by the time a man is mature enough and ready to be a father they do not want to form relationships with women who are of the same age and perhaps less fertile.
Will egg freezing become as ubiquitous as oral contraception? Carl Djerassi, the chemist, playwright and novelist whose work was instrumental in development of the first contraceptive pill, said that he thought one day everyone would be freezing their eggs. While technically we can now do this and the techniques for freezing and thawing are improving all the time, only about one in five cycles will enable a woman to have a baby.
Still, it does seem that for highly educated single women, elective egg freezing is becoming normalised. And although these women are struggling to find partners, we should not assume that men have no interest in being involved.
At present there are a few companies that will fund egg freezing as an employment benefit but most of the women we spoke to were self-funding. That does exclude women who do not have the financial means, or a parent, friend or sibling who can give or loan money for elective egg freezing.
So, it seems unlikely that everyone will be undergoing elective egg freezing any time soon. But in the future, who knows. What we do know is that men are stepping up to support the women in their lives as they go through egg freezing, and that is something to be acknowledged positively.