So what’s happening with your eggs?’ This was the question Sara Murray’s oldest friend asked her recently during a phone catch-up.
It’s the same question she’s been asking Sara ever since she decided to freeze her eggs back in 2015, aged 43. ‘Normally when she asks me that, it reawakens my emotional dilemma of whether I should try to use my eggs or not,’ admits Sara. ‘But this time, as I sipped on my herbal tea, I felt a strange sense of peace.
‘I’m turning 49 this summer, and after years of assuming I’ll have children one day, I’m starting to accept this just might not happen for me.
‘My 11 eggs are still on ice and the truth is, I’m unlikely to use them — leaving me with the difficult decision of what to do with them.’
For now, Sara’s story is unusual. But it’s about to become much more common. Desperate to be a mother, but lacking a man with whom to start a family, she was one of hundreds of single women who froze their eggs when the technology to do so became widely available in the 2010s.
Sarah Murray, 49, from East London, (pictured) froze 11 of her eggs back in 2015 when she was 43 years old that she is now ‘unlikely’ to use
Like Sara, however, many of those women are still single as they approach menopause, and are now faced with an agonising and poignant dilemma — should they continue paying several hundred pounds a year to keep their precious eggs in storage, despite the fading of that once-insistent maternal instinct?
Or should they sign the papers to destroy them, and with it lose the chance for ever to have their own biological baby?
The truth is, Sara is one of the first to face a set of brand-new ethical questions.
When she froze her eggs six years ago, she was at the vanguard of widely-available egg-freezing tech, which means she’s also one of the first to approach her 50th birthday with her eggs still on ice.
In 2013, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) recorded just 569 egg-freezing cycles, a number that jumped to 2,000 in 2018 and is still rising.
There’s no cut-off age, so a woman can freeze her eggs at any stage, providing she hasn’t hit the menopause and is still producing eggs.
So far Sara has spent close to £10,000 on the whole process. Much more significantly, however, over the years her attitude to those eggs has shifted dramatically.
‘My eggs weren’t super-young when I froze them, but they’ve retained their age while I obviously haven’t,’ she explains.
Sarah (pictured) spent nearly £10,000 on the process but her mindset has changed as she is uncertain about becoming a mother as she is approaching 50
‘While biologically I could probably still carry a baby to term, something I never expected has happened: my biological clock has almost stopped ticking.’
Pre-menopausal and menopausal women can still theoretically have a child if they use a young healthy egg — whether its their own frozen one or a donor egg.
‘We can create an ‘artificial’ treatment cycle with medication such that we can transfer an embryo [e.g. from an egg frozen ten years before] with great success,’ explains Alison Campbell, group director of embryology at Care Fertility Group.
‘As women get older, we see a decline in the quality of their eggs and this is the primary reason that trying to conceive in their mid to late 30s, and even more so in their 40s, becomes less successful than when they were younger.
‘Freezing eggs effectively pauses this age-related decline in their quality. Even though the woman gets older, if she uses her eggs at a later date — even ten years later — her chance of success will be what it was at the time of freeze.’
But for women like Sara, it is the thought of being a mother aged 50 that is the real issue.
‘When I froze them, I hoped I’d be able to use them within the next couple of years. At the time I was single, but didn’t want to go down the path of becoming a single mother. My goal was to meet somebody, then ideally use my eggs to try to start a family together.
‘I knew I’d already left it quite late, but there was still a chance. I never expected to find myself in this situation aged 48.’
‘Something I never expected has happened — my biological clock has almost stopped ticking’
A TV executive based in East London, Sara prioritised her career and dated on-and-off in her 30s before beginning to explore egg-freezing when she was about to turn 40.
‘I didn’t know I definitely wanted a child, but I started thinking seriously about the fact that time was running out.’
She looked into sperm donors after a lesbian friend used one to have a baby, but found it overwhelming. ‘I realised I didn’t want to do it alone,’ she says.
‘The more I spoke to friends with children, the more I felt the reality of doing it as a single parent would be incredibly hard.
‘There was definitely a part of me that felt I’d be missing out on one of life’s great experiences — the love between a mother and a child — if I didn’t try to become pregnant. But at the same time, the thought of doing it by myself felt terrifying.
My parents are supportive, but they’re in their 80s and live in Scotland. If anything happened in the middle of the night, I’d have nobody there to help.’
In the end, she chose to freeze her eggs at the Centre for Reproductive & Genetic Health (CRGH) in London. The service included sessions with a therapist, during which she discussed when might be the right time to use her eggs.
‘The therapist said there’s no right decision, there’s just a decision, and you get to choose what it is. So I chose to essentially put off that decision by freezing my eggs.’
By then she was 43, and managed to retrieve 11 eggs at a cost of £7,500 after just one cycle of intensive hormone treatment.
The success of any future pregnancy was by no means guaranteed — there’s a 14.8 per chance of a live birth using frozen eggs extracted at the age of 40 compared to 31.5 per cent for those harvested when a woman is 25 — but the quantity she froze gave her as good a chance as she was going to get.
Carla Poole, 49, spent £10,000 freezing her eggs when she was 37 but UK law says human eggs can be frozen for ‘social’ reasons for a maximum of ten years only (stock image)
Sara knew the statistics, but it still gave her a sense of hope, and agency. Psychologically, she felt better instantly.
‘I felt like freezing my eggs gave me more time and more choices — though in a way, it was a false sense of security because time was still ticking.’
Every year, the clinic would send her annual reminders about the £300 storage fee, to check she still wanted to keep her eggs frozen.
The letter would land like a ticking bomb on the doormat, reminding her that yet another year had gone and still, despite dating, she’d not found the right man.
‘It would just bring up the dilemma all over again,’ says Sara. ‘The first year it had a big impact. I realised how quickly it had gone and felt a slight sense of failure and sadness. The truth is, I knew my longing wasn’t so much about being a mother as having a family with a partner.’
During the second year, she asked a gay friend to consider fathering a child with her, using the eggs. But after a long deliberation, he said no.
‘By year three, when I’d only been on a handful more dates, I started to come to terms more with the idea of not having a child. A smaller part of me was thinking about using the eggs on my own, but a bigger part was thinking I probably wouldn’t.
‘By the fifth year, when I got my annual reminder during lockdown, I no longer imagined myself using the eggs.’
UK law currently says human eggs can be frozen for ‘social’ reasons for a maximum of ten years only, but that limit was set in 1984 and is widely considered an arbitrary figure. (By contrast, there’s a 55-year limit for eggs frozen for ‘medical’ reasons — before a woman undertakes fertility-destroying chemotherapy, for example).
Campaigns to abolish the limit are ongoing and the British government is currently reviewing it.
‘My frozen eggs have completely done their job. Even though I never used them, they were my fallback plan’
But while that might be beneficial for women who froze their eggs in their 20s, for those in their 40s — who now find, mid-menopause, that the desire to conceive has subsided — extending the egg limit may actually be prolonging the dilemma, now they may be confronted with having to order the destruction of their eggs themselves.
Professor Adam Balen, a former chairman of the British Fertility Society and lead clinician at the clinic Leeds Fertility, says: ‘I appreciate it [choosing to destroy your eggs] is a huge dilemma and a massively emotional burden for women who may not have started a family. I think the key thing is clinics should ensure women have appropriate counselling and their expectations are properly managed before they freeze eggs.’
Carla Poole, 49, spent £10,000 freezing her eggs when she was 37, so has already passed the ten-year UK limit.
Instead of allowing the eggs to be destroyed, however, she paid a few hundred pounds to move them to a clinic in Spain where time limits don’t apply. ‘After spending £10,000 to freeze them it didn’t seem a lot.’
In fact, Carla is already a mum, having met her current partner at the age of 40. Immediately they started trying for a baby and despite having four miscarriages, she conceived naturally and without using the frozen eggs. Their daughter is now six.
‘While I was going through all those miscarriages, knowing I had frozen eggs was an absolute mental lifesaver,’ she says.
Today, she’s sure she won’t try for another child.
She’d like to donate her frozen eggs — ‘it seems such a waste otherwise’ — but as there are strict regulations about the tests that egg donors must undergo, and most clinics will not use donor eggs from women over the age of 35, this isn’t a viable option.
Just like Sara, Carla has a complex psychological relationship with this precious biological treasure. ‘They have completely done their job,’ she says. ‘They were my fallback plan when I needed it. Even though I never used them, I will never regret the decision to freeze them.’
Rather than destroying the eggs, Carla moved them to a clinic in Spain where time limits don’t apply but many woman are faced with the decision of what to do with their eggs (stock image)
And that’s partly why she can’t bring herself to have them destroyed.
Sarah Norcross, the director of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), has been pushing for an increase to the ten-year limit so women have more time to make these choices.
‘For some women who didn’t want to try to be mothers on their own, and haven’t met anyone, it can be a very sad decision to have to make.
For others, it can be a really positive choice if, for example, they don’t need their eggs as they’ve subsequently met someone and had children naturally.’
Having gone for six years without meeting anyone ‘right’, Sara Murray met someone new in December last year.
‘It’s still early days, but he’s the first person I’ve dated whom I’ve told about my frozen eggs,’ she says. ‘It was something I brought up on our third or fourth date, and he said that he would be open to having a conversation about using them some point down the line if I wanted to. I felt very touched by that.
‘I feel if I’d met him three years ago, I would have taken him up on it. But the fact is I’m 48, and I can’t just use my eggs to try and start a family with someone I’ve been with for four months. I’d have to wait to give the relationship a chance first, but by then I’d be at least 49 or 50, which is quite old to have a baby.’
‘I sometimes feel sad that there’s a side to myself I’ll never know about: what I would have been like as a mother?’
Yet the man she’s seeing has teenage children of his own, and that’s making her ‘wonder if having a different kind of family could be enough’.
What will she do with her eggs? It’s surely one of the toughest decisions any woman will have to make. ‘I do think I’m potentially facing another wave of grief soon,’ she admits. ‘I’ll probably pay for storage till the ten-year limit so I don’t have to ‘kill’ them.
It doesn’t feel like a lot — £300 a year to not let go of the hope of becoming a mother — so even though it’s really unlikely I’ll use them, a tiny part of me still hasn’t let go.’