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Questions about egg-freezing and IVF

A monthly column by the Emmanuel Community: 46 Rosalino Street, Woodbrook.Tel:628-1064;emmancommtt@gmail.com

It has become fashionable these days for women to freeze their eggs for use at some future date when the time is ‘right’ for them to give birth and raise a family.

The practice of egg-freezing was first used in animal preservation, to safeguard against certain species becoming extinct. Later the procedure was applied to women about to undergo treatment for cancer, as the cancer treatments often rendered them infertile.

Nowadays, the practice has become a lifestyle choice, purportedly to free women to pursue their careers, or as insurance against their natural biological clock, although researchers have found that many women are freezing their eggs, not because of their careers, but because they cannot find a similarly successful man.

Elective oocyte cryopreservation is the term used to describe non-essential egg freezing for the purpose of preserving fertility for delayed child-bearing when natural conception becomes more problematic. It is often marketed as “egg-freezing parties”, modelled along the lines of the Tupperware parties of old—and the hostess gets a sizeable discount if she signs up for one herself. Not an unattractive incentive, since it costs about US$10,000 to harvest eggs from the ovaries, after a woman has taken medication for several weeks to stimulate egg production.

Then the eggs are frozen and stored, at a cost of about US$500 a year. When the woman is ready the eggs are thawed, fertilised and transferred to the uterus as embryos (via in vitro fertilisation), at a cost of about US$5,000. Many women will have to undergo the procedure more than once.

Women run the risk of Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), which can result in a stroke. As the egg-harvesting procedure is a surgical procedure, there are the potential complications that accompany any surgical procedure. In addition, there are longer-term risks of cancers associated with the fertility drugs the women have to take.

According to an October 2014 article by Patti Neighmond in a New Hampshire Public Radio online publication, the success rate of the procedure (i.e., the chances of a live birth) varies according to the age of the woman: 14.8 per cent if the eggs were extracted when the woman was 40; 31.5 per cent if the eggs were extracted when the woman was 25.

Despite the odds, the government of Japan, concerned that the declining birth rate would depress the working population and increase the financial burden on them as the older generation retires, will help women in a Tokyo suburb cover the cost of freezing their eggs in a three-year pilot programme, according to a June 2016 report in the Brietbart News.

What do these ‘developments’ mean for us as Catholics? Catholic teaching maintains that a child has the right to be conceived in the marital embrace of his parents, and that human sexuality has two components, the unitive and the procreative; IVF separates these components and makes the procreative its only goal.

Another problem with IVF is that it makes the child a commodity, and involves so many others in the conception process. Both the sperm and the egg may not come from the couple (or the woman on her own) desiring the child.

While we may empathise with those persons who are desirous of becoming parents, we wish to highlight the words of Pope Francis at a meeting with members of the Association of Italian Catholic Medical Doctors in November 2014.

There, he denounced a “false compassion” that would justify artificial reproduction technologies and medical research that violate human dignity and applaud “a scientific breakthrough to produce a child and consider it to be a right, rather than a gift to welcome”.