A perhaps unforeseen outcome of the COVID pandemic has been a dramatic increase in the number of women freezing their eggs. In Queensland, in the period from 2019 to 2020, Monash IVF Brisbane reported a 250% increase in the number of women freezing their eggs, and the Queensland Fertility Group experienced a 32 per cent increase between 2019 to 2021.
Spokespersons for the clinics have attributed these increases to the unique circumstances in which women have found themselves in the past year as a result of COVID restrictions.
The Queensland Fertility Group Medical Director Associate Professor Anusch Yazdani has stated that:
“…the pandemic focused everyone’s thoughts toward family and how much it means to them, while sitting in isolation at home. … they haven’t been able to travel or move around and they’ve refocused their time in the health elements of their life. Social media has also played a big role in people feeling like their biological clock is ticking.”
Monash IVF Medical Director Ross Turner argues that:
“Egg freezing is much more normalised now than it was even 5 years ago. It’s heartening to see more women being proactive about their fertility and giving their future selves options.”
The capacity of women and men to go out and socialise, let alone form meaningful relationships has been severely curtailed by COVID social distancing and lockdown measures:
“Many single people feel as if they’ve fallen a year behind on their life plans. Dating was almost impossible at the beginning of the pandemic. Even now, near-strangers must negotiate a difficult social dance with one another when they agree to meet up for a distanced drink—when can they hug, kiss or even just go indoors together? When will they feel safe with one another?”
The dramatic increase in the past few years can also be attributed to the influence of Hollywood celebrities promoting the practice:
“The spike comes thanks in part to celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Michaela Coel and Emma Roberts sharing their own egg-freezing stories. Kourtney Kardashian went so far as to film her egg freezing preparation on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Amy Schumer shared pictures of her bloated and bruised stomach as she took the shots this summer to freeze her eggs as part of her IVF process. They’ve demystified a process that was little known just a few years ago, including, in Schumer’s case, the most uncomfortable aspects.”
The practice was originally developed for “women undergoing potentially fertility-threatening treatments (e.g. chemotherapy for cancer) or those at risk of premature menopause.” However it has “been increasingly marketed to and used by women who are concerned about age-related fertility decline and wish to increase their chances of having a baby in the future.”
Similar increases have been reported not just in Australia, but in the United States and United Kingdom during the pandemic period. It is clear that the pandemic – coupled with persistent online marketing campaigns from fertility clinics – has exacerbated existing fears women have about their future fertility. Indeed, feminist scholars have criticised the marketing of these egg freezing procedures as “ultimately generating an atmosphere of increased reproductive anxiety.” (Zeynep B. Gürtin, Emily Tiemann, The marketing of elective egg freezing: A content, cost and quality analysis of UK fertility clinic websites, Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online (2021) 12, 56-68).
Yet, serious questions remain about the ethics of the egg freezing industry and the potential conflicts of interests that exist for an industry that straddles the uneasy divide between being a so-called health provider and needing to be “patient-centred” on the one hand, and a “profit-driven” business on the other.
Given that the websites of fertility clinics and social media are the main sources of information for women considering these procedures, researchers in the United Kingdom undertook to analyse the websites of these clinics to determine what kind of information was being conveyed. They conclude that there is an “unbalanced view of egg freezing on their websites, highlighting its potential benefits and failing to adequately discuss its potential risks. Clinics’ websites were also not sufficiently clear and transparent about the cost of an egg freezing cycle, with the average ‘true’ cost exceeding the advertised costs by approximately a third.”
The reality is that the fertility industry is big business both in this country and overseas, and accordingly, these clinics provide and market their services in a way that is intended to maximise the bottom line. They have been criticised in the past for advertising that has misled women about the success rate or otherwise of their services.
An ABC investigation last year into women and men’s experiences of the fertility industry uncovered the reality that so many people feel unsupported by the private companies:
“The for-profit model of most IVF clinics has led to the use of unproven and unregulated treatments. And a lack of transparency around success rates – for example, when clinics report pregnancy rates, rather than live birth rates – makes some people feel deceived. … in their submissions to the ABC, countless respondents have pleaded for greater regulation and oversight of the fertility industry, wishing their care was handled more sensitively.”
The less than high success rates, coupled with the significant health risks of the practice, must be communicated to women on these websites; otherwise women are unable to provide informed consent to what are ultimately highly invasive procedures, marketed to allay deeply held concerns about future fertility.
Women anxious about their future fertility already have enough anxiety about the issue. Providing them with misleading claims about what these services can ultimately deliver will only serve to further disempower and demoralise them.
Examples of advertising material from fertility clinics