Career women seek to freeze eggs

Professional career women have been asking doctors to help them freeze their eggs for future pregnancies - even though the law currently does not allow it unless for medical reasons.

This is based on a Straits Times check with half a dozen doctors after the Health Ministry (MOH) announced recently that it is reviewing the policy on egg freezing.

Fertility doctors in private practice said they get queries on social egg freezing - freezing one's eggs for non-medical reasons - from a few times a year to as often as twice a month. At the Singapore General Hospital and National University Hospital, the assisted reproduction clinics get queries about one to two times a year.

The requests typically come from successful, single women above age 35. Dr Ng Soon Chye of Sincere IVF Center said they are aware of the problem of declining fertility with increasing age. But he noted it is a "social reality" that women want to improve their careers before starting a family.

Centre for Assisted Reproduction medical director Paul Tseng said the women feel their biological clocks ticking away and fear they will miss the chance to have children. "These are genuine fears and one certainly feels for them."

Thomson Fertility Centre's Dr Loh Seong Feei said a few have resorted to freezing their eggs overseas since it is not allowed here.

Last week, Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said in Parliament that a review of the medical, scientific and ethical implications of the policy is under way.

An MOH spokesman said, in response to queries, that the aim is to "establish a policy position" and "develop a regulatory framework with safeguards" if the policy position is to allow social egg freezing. Currently, only women who have to undergo treatments that may damage fertility - chemotherapy, for instance - are allowed to freeze their eggs.

MOH "remains cautious" about allowing egg freezing for non-medical purposes and views it as "relatively new". The British Fertility Society sees it as an "experimental procedure".

There is also limited data on clinical outcomes and no information on long-term effects on children born from using vitrified eggs, said MOH's spokesman.

Singapore's College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, however, calls it an "important, safe and efficient technology".

The process of obtaining eggs for freezing and in-vitro fertilisation follows the same guidelines set by MOH and international regulatory bodies, said Dr Ann Tan of the Women & Fetal Centre.

Dr Loh added that the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recently removed its "experimental" label on egg freezing. The society also noted no increases in birth defects, chromosomal abnormalities or developmental deficit in children born from frozen eggs.

But there are questions over the success rates. Published studies show they depend on the age of the woman when the eggs are retrieved. The younger she is, the better the success rate, said Thomson Fertility Centre's chief embryologist Ethiraj Balaji Prasath.

Most fertility experts support social egg freezing but also say the best way of having children is a natural pregnancy.

Stringent criteria should be in place so it does not become a "lifestyle choice", said Dr Tseng.

A spokesman for the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said there should be "rigorous counselling about the disadvantages of delayed child-bearing".

A woman who works in the medical sector, aged 34, said: "I want to have children, but my husband wants more time before we start on expanding our family. Being in the medical industry, I'm well aware of the risks we run the longer we wait to start our family.

I'm seriously looking into the option of egg freezing to give us better odds."

Women's cancer specialist Tay Eng Hseon said that instead of raising Singapore's fertility rates, it may, on the contrary, lull women into a false sense of security, delaying child-bearing further.

Association of Women for Action and Research executive director Corinna Lim said the option would not be very meaningful if the conditions that deter women from having kids persist, such as the lack of support for caregivers.

Recently formed independent, non-profit organisation Belris, or Bioethics Legal Group for Reproductive Issues in Singapore, is conducting a survey to find out women's opinions on egg freezing. The survey is on www.belris.sg

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