'Chilling out' at an egg freezing party

By Regan Morris
BBC News, Los Angeles

image captionDrinks, hors d'oeuvres and learning about egg vitrification

The timing of having a child has always been complicated for working women, but egg freezing parties hope to capture their attention by promoting advances in technology alongside cocktails and mingling.

This swanky cocktail party at the Beverly Wilshire is packed with women. It's the very hotel where Julia Roberts' Pretty Woman told Richard Gere's character she wouldn't settle for being a mistress - that she wanted the fairy tale.

While it's no longer a Hollywood film set, the young women here also want it all - and they are refusing to settle when it comes to their fertility.

These women are at a "Let's Chill" cocktail party to learn about egg freezing, this one sponsored by a firm that provides the service.

Aside from cocktails and some fancy hors d'oeuvres, the party includes a presentation from a company representative, personal testimony from women who've frozen their eggs, a panel with top fertility doctors, as well a question and answer session and time to mingle.

"It's pretty casual. We hope it's fun and more laid back than being in a waiting room," says Jay Palumbo, the vice president of patient care at EggBanxx, which is hosting the party.

image captionAt an EggBanxx presentation in New York

Ms Palumbo says many of the company's executives went through fertility problems while starting families in their mid-to-late 30s and they feel a responsibility to help the next generation of women know their options.

At the very least, she says, women should get some blood work done and know how many eggs they have and their quality - which tends to decrease with age.

"This is not something that's taught, it's not like an annual exam," Ms Palumbo says.

"So if we can empower these women to just get their blood work, to know what their fertility health is and then they can decide if they want to do egg freezing, I think it's empowering."

Egg freezing has been around for decades, primarily as a way for cancer patients to try and preserve their fertility before it's destroyed by chemotherapy.

But egg freezing has been revolutionised in the last few years by a process known as vitrification - a flash freezing of the eggs - which prevents destructive ice crystals from forming.

image copyrightPA

In 2012, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) said that egg freezing should no longer be considered "experimental" because of the new success using vitrification.

But the influential ASRM only removed the "experimental" label for cancer patients and couples going through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) who have extra eggs they may want to use in the future.

"Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing," the ASRM wrote.

"In particular, there is concern regarding the success rates in women in the late reproductive years who may be the most interested in this application."

Fertility experts at the party echoed that warning. They urged women to freeze young.

The process works best if women freeze their eggs before they turn 33. But many of the women considering egg freezing at the "Let's Chill" party were over 35, which reduces their odds of successfully conceiving a child with their frozen eggs.

image captionNew York women learn more about egg freezing at an event in September

Critics say delaying motherhood is nothing to party about and that society should instead be focusing on creating work-life balance and better policies to support parents in the workforce.

But overwhelmingly the women at the party said focusing on their career wasn't the problem.

Rachel Smith, a 35-year-old engineer, was typical of the partygoers. She said she had not made a conscious choice to put her career before family - it's just that her career has been more successful than her love life.

"At this point I haven't found the right partner yet and I just didn't want to be forced to pick someone," says Ms Smith.

"I just want to have options in my life. I don't want to be forced to necessarily pick a guy who is not going to be my right partner just so I can produce a family."

media caption"Women will face difficult decisions over how to balance work and family life" reports Alison Holt

Those options don't come cheap.

Ms Smith, who wants two children some day, was shopping around and asking questions about EggBanxx's financing plans.

The procedure begins much like IVF. Women give themselves injections at home to stimulate their ovaries for about 10 days, before the surgical harvesting of the eggs. This process costs about $10,000 (£6,700) per session.

Then there are annual fees for storing the eggs in liquid nitrogen and a few thousand more if a woman chooses to use those eggs in the future.

In Los Angeles, women were also concerned about the safety of their eggs if an earthquake hits.

Ms Smith said she hadn't been satisfied with answers she'd gotten from various clinics about their earthquake preparedness.

For a woman to conceive and deliver a baby in her late 30s or early 40s using frozen eggs, experts say she should have at least 10 eggs frozen. So Ms Smith would need at least 20 frozen eggs for two children.

EggBanxx executives - who certainly aren't the only ones hosting egg freezing parties - say their programme is unique because they have a network of doctors across the country and can offer a discount between 10-20% as well as financing.

The financing is key, they say, for younger women who couldn't easily afford the procedure.

Is the egg freezing party trend just clever marketing, pushing a fairytale to women who want it all? Women at the party rejected that notion.

They said they understood there were no guarantees and that they were too smart to be manipulated. In fact, most thought the party was a hit.

Tiffany, a 39-year-old psychotherapist, said she did not feel like she was being sold anything.

"I felt like I was being given the stark reality of what the situation is like for women over 35 and so I'm really glad that I came."

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