Egg freezing is the fastest growing fertility treatment in the UK, but with costs starting at £7,000 and success rates not immediately clear, is the industry fair on women?
Between 2019 and 2021, egg freezing (and fertility preservation cycles like it) saw a 64% increase.
The procedure isn't available on the NHS and is largely carried out by private clinics at a price tag of £7,000 to £8,000*.
It effectively puts your fertility on hold.
Eggs are collected and frozen when a woman is younger, and the eggs of a better quality. They are then thawed at a later date, to be used in IVF to try and get pregnant.
There are, however, no official accurate success rates for having a baby from frozen eggs, with people advised to instead look at IVF rates as an accurate measure.
That, combined with a price tag of potentially tens of thousands of pounds, has raised questions about how fair and transparent the industry is.
Sophie Richards is 26-years-old, she has endometriosis and has already frozen her eggs.
Though the condition doesn't necessarily result in infertility, there is an association with fertility problems, according to Endometriosis UK, and repeated surgeries can impact too.
"I've had four surgeries for endometriosis, all of which have been chopping and changing my ovaries," Sophie said.
"So I decided to go on a fertility journey myself and get my eggs frozen because I was really worried I'd need to get my ovaries removed, which almost happened in one of my emergency surgery."
Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows in other places (like the ovaries and fallopian tubes) often causing pain, heavy periods, and in some cases making it difficult to get pregnant.
Sophie spent her house deposit fund on one round of treatment and was funded by her parents for a second round. She successfully froze 25 eggs in total and documented her entire journey on her Instagram and TikTok page, The Endo Spectrum.
Before getting on to the physical and emotional strain of the process, Sophie described the financial costs alone as "horrific" and called for it to be funded, or at least partially-funded, by the NHS - especially for those with conditions like endometriosis.
Because of her endometriosis, Sophie went through the process at an NHS hospital rather than a private clinic, but still had to self-fund. She said going through a hospital meant there was greater transparency about the chances of having a baby from frozen eggs.
"From the get go they were very clear that this was an ifs, buts, maybes, fingers crossed your eggs will work. I felt so defeated putting all of my savings into this one process that might not even work," she said.
Because of those warnings, Sophie said: "I actually went into the process very pessimistic. They were very clear with how small the chance is."
But Sophie received messages from people following her journey who said their clinics had told them the process resulted in a "guaranteed pregnancy".
"Not to paint every clinic with the same brush," Sophie said, "but the private clinics seem to be a lot more positive about what your results can be".
The data doesn't exist to tell us the chance of having a baby from a frozen egg.
Instead the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) advises looking at the success rates of IVF treatment. That tells us your chance of having a live birth from a single round of IVF is as follows:
33% if you're aged 18 to 34
25% if you're aged 35 to 37
17% if you're aged 38 to 39
10% if you're aged 40 to 42
and 4% if you're aged 43 to 50*
The HFEA advises people looking into the procedure to enquire at their clinic for "their most recent success rates for women your age", and each clinic listed on the HFEA website lists its IVF birth rate in comparison with the national average.
But there are concerns the information just isn't clear enough.
Sophie went through the process by herself and described it as "very lonely" given she was already in a "sensitive state".
"I'll never forget it because I had barely sat down in my seat before they said: 'Do you have a partner? Are you single? Are you in a relationship? Do you wanna freeze your eggs with a partner? What do you want to do?'
"And it was just that feeling like I was being fired all of these questions when I was already in quite a sensitive state," she said.
It's that volume and density of information that prompted Dr Irfana Koita to begin hosting egg freezing parties.
None of the procedure is carried out at the events, instead women are given a two hour deep-dive into what egg freezing is, how it works, why it might be for them, and (crucially) the stats on success rates.
"Egg freezing offers massive choice it's actually a very reasonable option that women who don't want to engage in starting a family right away should really look in to," Dr Koita told me before one of the parties.
"The first is the discovery phase where you just want to learn about yourself. Just gather the information about your own fertility and then based on what that information reveals, you would know more as to what your chances are, and that would be more realistic."
It's that message Dr Koita shares with the women attending her egg freezing party.She urges them to start the process by checking on their fertility as they would any other aspect of health.
Having researched this topic for months, I was still not certain what a round of egg freezing meant for chances of having a baby at the end. I put this to Dr Koita.
"No matter what the data says, it will depend on your ovarian function".
Dr Koita said while it's important to look at the most up-to-date authentic statistics from the HFEA, the UK's fertility authority, she added that "individual circumstances" also play a key part.
"No matter what the data says, it's not to say that if you are 25 you automatically have a 30% chance of having a successful outcome if you freeze your eggs. You could be older and yet have very good ovarian function or you could be younger and have very poor ovarian function," she said.
But what about the women who do want to follow the statistics, who want the percentages for what freezing an egg means for a chance of pregnancy?
Dr Koita told me: "What studies have found is that in those who've managed to put between 15 and 20 eggs in storage, they've got a very good chance of a live birth.
"Generally after one round of egg freezing, you would expect to get between eight and 10 eggs. So if you are trying to achieve that 15-20 magic number then you may need to do it twice, but equally there are women who produce 15 eggs in one round."
But women's health journalist Kellie Leonard has concerns about how much research women need to do to get clear, accurate information.
She says the industry should be better regulated when it comes to marketing the procedure and the potential additional costs.
"A lot of women have to do their research before they go and if they don't do that some of these, especially private clinics, are almost bamboozling them into a lot of add-ons," she said.
"They're definitely almost using the vulnerability of women and the fact they're on a bit of a timer with it to get more money, which is what my main concern is".
Indeed, in January the HFEA (the UK's fertility authority) called for an urgent update to the law around egg freezing.
It warned about a lack of transparency around clinics offering egg freezing, potentially adding to costs.
The fertility authority also issued claims from experts that clinics were adopting "aggressive" marketing tactics and not taking enough care over patients' physical and mental wellbeing.
These additional treatments can include things like steroids and time lapse imaging of the embryos being used in IVF.
They "often claim to be effective at improving the chances of having a baby," the HFEA said, but warned: "There is no conclusive evidence that any of the commonly offered add-ons increase the chance of a pregnancy."
The authority said: "Some treatment add-ons can cost hundreds or thousands of pounds each."
So with the price tag, the process itself and the far-from-guaranteed-results, is it all worth it?
For Sophie, it's a matter of choice and buying the security of choice for later on.
"I didn't choose to have endometriosis," she said.
"I'm 26 and I had to make the decision that I needed to freeze my eggs now for the future. There's a huge spectrum of women like me that are just really wanting to have a family and this is the only way that we're able to do that.
"I think people should be given all of the information and all of the facts and then it's up to them whether they decide."
If you would like to share your experience of egg freezing or fertility treatment in the UK, please email email@example.com
* £7,000 - £8,000 is the total cost estimated by the HFEA for the whole process of egg freezing and thawing.
* IVF statistics from the HFEA's 'fertility treatment 2021: preliminary trends and figures' report published in June 2023