Demanding careers and delayed motherhood mean an increasing number of South African women are trying to quiet the ticking of their biological clocks by freezing their eggs.
Women are coughing up big bucks for a procedure that allows them to work through their twenties and thirties, and to have children as late as in their fifties – but with no guarantees.
In a bid to lure top female staff, multinational tech giants, including Facebook and Google, started funding the egg-freezing procedure as part of their lucrative employee-benefit packages from November last year.
This week, Google’s local spokesperson, Mich Atagana, said the perk was available to female staff in South Africa. But he would not elaborate, as it was “a very private benefit between Google and the person employed”.
A spokesperson for Facebook in South Africa, Janina Boezaart, said that, at the moment, the benefit was only available to Facebook’s US employees.
Since 2007, egg freezing has been used to help women with cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy to preserve their fertility, but it’s increasingly also being used to delay motherhood for nonmedical reasons.
Dr Antonio Rodrigues, a director of the Medfem Fertility Clinic in Sandton, told City Press they performed the procedure about 10 times a month.
In Cape Town, Dr Klaus Wiswedel, director of the Cape Fertility Clinic, said he performed the treatment about three times a month.
The costs include an initial R45 000 to harvest and freeze the eggs, plus R1 800 a year to store them in liquid nitrogen tanks kept at -196°C.
To have the eggs thawed, fertilised and reinserted costs R9 000.
Wiswedel advises having the procedure done between the ages of 32 and 36. He does not recommend it for women older than 37.
“This is useful for women who don’t have time for babies due to their careers – which happens more than you think,” said Wiswedel. “Or patients in their thirties who have not settled down yet.”
He said egg freezing became “more mainstream” in 2007 after the breakthrough discovery of ultrarapid freezing, or vitrification, which causes minimal damage to human eggs.
Labelled as “experimental” by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine up until 2013, freezing unfertilised eggs — known medically as oocyte cryopreservation — is now available at most major reproductive clinics in South Africa.
Wiswedel pronounced it safe, saying research was “very encouraging”, but as it was very new technology, there were no absolute guarantees yet.
The egg-freezing industry is expected to be worth about $21 billion by 2020, reports healthline.com. The practice remains controversial.
Virgin CEO Richard Branson has been openly supportive, saying he would like to introduce the policy at his company.
“We at Virgin want to steal the idea and offer it to our women,” he told Bloomberg in April. “Somebody said to me they got criticism … and I said: ‘How can anybody criticise them for doing that? It’s a woman’s choice.’”
Branson has a personal reason for supporting egg-freezing policies: “My daughter just had two wonderful twins from eggs, and they wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the [freezing].”
In the US, Dr Jane Frederick, a specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, told healthline.com the procedure was popular with single women who hadn’t met their ideal partners, and who wanted to preserve healthy eggs to use later in life.