Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stupid women think they can have it all

Thus making it likely that they will miss out big time

IT COST more than $3000 and was one of the more harrowing experiences of her life, but for Lesley Major it has meant another 10 years of breathing space while she waits for Mr Right.

Ms Major, 38, is one of a handful of Australian women who have chosen to freeze their eggs in a bid to beat mother nature and the man drought - but the technology is still so experimental that no fertility clinic in Sydney will agree to it.

The process is legal but fertility experts say the shell of the human egg is too thin and fragile to survive the freezing process, with some studies showing as few as 2 per cent become embryos - and only then if the woman is under 35 when she has them frozen.

Most clinics will allow women who are facing infertility from chemotherapy or radiotherapy to store their eggs, but only two in Australia offer the service, not covered by Medicare, to women considered "socially infertile" - those without a partner or wanting to delay motherhood to further their careers.

One in seven babies in Australia is now born to first-time mothers aged over 35 and it has become more accepted for women to take longer to choose a life partner. But this cultural shift has caused many to believe medicine will save them when they start a family in their late 30s or early 40s, says Warren DeAmbrosis, a director of Queensland Fertility Group. His clinic claims to have had more pregnancies from frozen eggs than any other in Australia, with a 70 per cent post-thaw survival rate, a 60 per cent fertilisation rate and a 30 per cent pregnancy rate for women under 37.

"I spend most of my day with women in tears because they have left their run too late - my heart goes to them," Dr DeAmbrosis says. "Obviously having frozen eggs is better than having no eggs at all, but they need to know that age is the biggest factor in infertility by a mile. If I have a single girl come to me at 39 or 40, it's just not worth her while."

Eggs at Dr DeAmbrosis's clinic are slow frozen but at some

international clinics they can now be snap-frozen in a process called vitrification, where water molecules do not have time to form ice crystals. Developed about three years ago, it has a 90 per cent post-thaw survival rate and a slightly higher pregnancy rate but still not high enough to convince Sydney fertility clinics.

"At this stage, we still see the technology as experimental and we have an ethical dilemma in taking money from a woman when there is very little chance of success," said fertility expert Anne Clark. "I definitely feel a bit uncomfortable telling women that this will give them a chance."

Peter Illingworth, president of the Fertility Society of Australia, agreed, saying women should not bank on egg freezing alone to have a family.

"In the United States and Japan they have huge egg donation programs where thousands are frozen and thawed within a few months, putting their success rates up, but in Australia, we freeze very few and we don't thaw them for years so most people have no idea whether it will work or not."

About 500 babies have been born worldwide from frozen eggs with no increased risk yet recorded but at Melbourne IVF fewer than 20 single women have had their eggs frozen because the clinic prefers to "be quiet and cautious" about the procedure in its early days. "We certainly don't promote it because we don't see it as a set-and-forget insurance policy for women," says clinical research director Kate Stern.

For Ms Major, though, it was a chance she was willing to take.

At 36, she had a great job, plenty of friends, a supportive family and a loving boyfriend nine years her junior. Neither was ready for children and Ms Major wasn't prepared to let her biological clock dictate the direction of the fledgling relationship.

"I know so many women around my age who start dating a guy and within months they are talking about having children. It's as if we all wake up one day at 35 and go, 'Holy shit, I forgot to have kids,' and then we're forced into making decisions. It frightens men and puts enormous pressure on the relationship. I just didn't want that."

But the process, which involved myriad medical tests and three weeks of hormone injections, proved far more confronting than she anticipated.

"It's not the easy ride people may think it is. I sat in the waiting room at the fertility clinic alone, feeling very singular. You are surrounded by couples, some of the women are quite distraught and I just felt so alone. I really had to reassess my values before I went into it but also be pragmatic about getting my bases covered."

Eighteen months later, with 14 eggs in the freezer, she is single again and living in Darwin. But she has set herself a deadline of 42 to find a suitable partner before discarding the eggs.

"I'm not the type of person who will have kids just because I can. I want a family of my own, a husband, a father. I'm the complete romantic so if I don't find the right person within the next few years, I'll let the eggs go. For now, though, I sometimes forget I have them until the bill arrives and I think, 'Ah, a postcard from my kids saying, Mum, please send money.' "

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