Written by Juliet Nnaji
In today’s world, the concept of birth control has significantly evolved, offering women a range of choices for managing their reproductive health, including contraceptives, comprehensive sexual education, and accessible healthcare services. A trend that has gone unnoticed, however, is the rising number of women considering egg freezing as a means to preserve their fertility.
As society shifts towards prioritizing career goals, educational pursuits, and personal growth, many women find themselves wanting to delay motherhood until later in life. However, the “biological clock” continues to tick, and egg freezing is becoming an attractive option for those who want to keep their fertility options open while pursuing their dreams. Surprisingly, this option remains largely unknown, especially in third-world or developing countries like Nigeria.
Let’s say the woman’s body is a finely tuned clock; as she journeys through life, this clock ticks along, orchestrating various aspects of her physical well-being. However, as she ages, particularly in her 30s and 40s, her biological clock undergoes changes. One significant change revolves around fertility. In the years preceding menopause, a woman’s fertility begins to drop, and conceiving a child is not as easy as it would have been for her as a younger woman. It’s like the delicate balance of ingredients in a recipe; if one element is slightly off, the entire dish might not turn out as expected.
Think of this woman’s fertility as a vibrant garden. In her younger years, this garden is in full bloom, teeming with fresh, vibrant flowers (representing healthy eggs). However, as the years go by, the garden experiences change. Some flowers begin to wither, and new ones might not bloom as brightly. This natural process affects both the quality and quantity of a woman’s eggs. The shift in the garden’s landscape can pose challenges when a woman decides to conceive naturally as she ages. Imagine trying to grow a beautiful garden in adverse weather conditions; it’s not impossible, but it certainly becomes more challenging. This challenge is not just a biological phenomenon; it also carries emotional weight, such as a sense of urgency and pressure, especially considering the biological clock and its decreasing fertility rates with age, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, frustration, and disappointment, particularly if conception does not occur as quickly as desired. Additionally, there can be emotional stress related to societal expectations, family pressure, and the fear of judgment from others.
The clash between biological changes and societal expectations is where the struggle begins. The traditional timelines that society has set, often rooted in cultural norms, don’t always align with the biological realities women face. It is akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The desire to have a child biologically might clash with the reality of modern life. Careers, education, personal pursuits – all these factors often push the timeline for starting a family further down the road. Egg freezing, on the other hand, emerges as a viable solution, preserving a woman’s fertility at its peak, irrespective of her age. This revolutionary technology not only grants women the gift of time but also provides them with the freedom to embrace their life pursuits, knowing that their fertility is safeguarded for the future. It’s a remarkable advancement, empowering women to live their lives on their own terms without the constant pressure of the “ticking biological clock”.
EMPOWERING WOMEN TO CHOOSE AND BREAK THE BIOLOGICAL CLOCK
In many African communities, discussions about women’s reproductive choices are often met with deep-rooted cultural biases. Traditional norms and societal expectations often create an atmosphere of judgment, making it challenging for women to make decisions that align with their personal aspirations. However, these norms are gradually shifting, with more women embracing the power to make informed choices about their bodies and futures.
Egg freezing, scientifically known as oocyte cryopreservation, involves the extraction, freezing, and storage of a woman’s eggs for future use. Thanks to advances in medical technology, this procedure has become increasingly successful. It provides women with the freedom to delay childbirth without compromising their chances of having a healthy pregnancy later in life. The procedure, although not without risks, offers a ray of hope to those who wish to balance their personal and professional lives.
EGG FREEZING: THE PROCESS
Before starting the egg-freezing process, a woman undergoes a thorough medical evaluation focused on her fertility. The doctor assesses her menstrual cycle’s regularity and conducts various blood tests to check hormone levels. Then, the woman starts with birth control pills for 2-3 weeks to stop her natural cycle and help the hormone medication work better. Upon the start of her menstrual cycle, or after stopping the birth control pills, the woman undergoes a daily injectable hormone medication. This involves the woman self-administering hormone injections at home, typically once to three times daily, for about two weeks to enhance egg production. This injection includes follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) to stimulate multiple egg production in the ovaries. About halfway through the woman self-administering the hormone injection, she receives an injection of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) to prevent premature ovulation. Finally, she receives an injection of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which triggers ovulation and prepares the woman’s body for egg retrieval.
Throughout the process, her doctor monitors the effects of the hormone medications through regular blood tests to ensure that follicles are growing appropriately and to change her medication dosage if necessary. Additionally, the woman undergoes at least one ultrasound to track ovulation and assess the development of eggs. This comprehensive approach ensures careful monitoring and support throughout her egg-freezing journey.
During the egg freezing procedure, a doctor carefully retrieves the mature eggs from ovarian follicles while the woman is asleep due to IV sedation, which also makes the process pain-free. This process is usually guided by ultrasound, ensuring precision. After retrieval, embryologists evaluate the mature eggs, which are then rapidly frozen in liquid nitrogen using a process called vitrification. Vitrification is an ultra-fast freezing method where water molecules solidify instantly into a glass-like structure, preventing the formation of ice crystals and increasing the survival rates of the eggs. The next day, or after the woman wakes up, she is informed about the number of eggs retrieved and frozen. The number of eggs retrieved varies based on factors like age.
After retrieval, many women have symptoms such as cramping, constipation, vaginal spotting, and bloating in the first 24 to 72 hours after egg retrieval. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help reduce these symptoms. If the symptoms are severe, she might need to contact her doctor or hospital.
EGG FREEZING: THE RISKS
The risks associated with egg freezing can include:
- Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS): OHSS can occur when medications used to stimulate egg production in the ovaries lead to excessively high hormone levels. This can result in ovarian enlargement, bloating, fluid accumulation in the abdomen, discomfort, and electrolyte imbalances.
- Bleeding or Injury: During the egg retrieval process, there is a slight risk of bleeding, damage to blood vessels, or injury to nearby organs.
- Emotional Impact: The egg process can be emotionally challenging, especially if the outcome is not as expected. Similar to how hormonal fluctuations in a typical menstrual cycle can influence mood, the stimulation medications used in egg freezing can also impact emotions. It may induce stress or mood swings, intensified by these hormone medications.
- Egg Survival Rate: Not all frozen eggs survive the thawing process, which can impact future fertility attempts. The thawing process in egg freezing involves warming frozen eggs to room temperature and preparing them for fertilization using assisted reproductive techniques like in vitro fertilization (IVF).
- Multiple Pregnancies: During the egg freezing process, if a woman engages in unprotected sex while self-injecting hormones, there’s a risk of multiple pregnancies. The hormonal injections can also increase sexual desire, leading to an increased sexual appetite during this time.
CHALLENGES WOMEN IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES MIGHT FACE IN FREEZING THEIR EGGS
The challenges faced by women in developing countries regarding egg freezing go beyond mere awareness and accessibility issues. One significant challenge is the extremely high cost attached to the procedure. For instance, renowned hospitals like Bridge Clinic in Nigeria charge fees reaching up to ? 931,700 annually and ? 363,000 biannually for egg storage. These substantial costs do not even cover the essential aspects of the egg freezing process, such as medical evaluations, hormone medications or injections, or ultrasounds.
This financial burden intensifies the struggle for women, who are already contending with limited resources. The high expenses involved in egg freezing not only discourage potential candidates, but they also make it harder for those with inadequate funds to choose egg freezing as an option, widening the gap between those who can choose egg freezing as an option to break the biological clock, and those who can’t.
Moreover, these financial challenges highlight a broader issue: the lack of comprehensive support for women’s reproductive choices. It underscores the urgent need for accessible and affordable healthcare services, ensuring that every woman, regardless of her financial background, can exercise her right to make informed decisions about her fertility. Addressing these financial challenges is crucial to empower women, allowing them to consider egg freezing without the burden of high costs and promoting a fairer environment in reproductive healthcare.
As societal attitudes continue to evolve, it is important to encourage open conversations, debunk myths, and provide unwavering support to ensure that every woman has the opportunity to choose. Regardless of her age, marital or financial status, or her dreams, goals, or aspirations.