"It brings relief and buys women time." These are the words Anna Raggi uses to summarise the advantages of social freezing. Anna Raggi is a reproductive physician at the fertisuiss centre and a member of the board of the Swiss Society for Reproductive Medicine. She currently advises around 10 to 15 women per month at the centre in Basel and Olten who are interested in the method - and the trend is rising.
Timing family planning is expensive
In social freezing, unfertilised eggs are removed as a precaution, i.e. without a medical reason. The cells are shock-frozen at minus 196 degrees Celsius in liquid nitrogen. The procedure is called cryopreservation.
If a woman or a couple wishes to have a child at a later date and the pregnancy does not succeed naturally, they can have these eggs thawed and artificially fertilised. In Switzerland, frozen eggs may currently be stored for a maximum of 10 years.
According to Anna Raggi, the treatment is low-risk. Nevertheless, it is physically demanding. As a first step, doctors inject hormones and stimulate the ovaries. This promotes the maturation of several eggs. Doctors then remove them during a short procedure under an anaesthetic. Depending on the age of the woman and the number of eggs to be preserved, several stimulation cycles may be needed. This is expensive: depending on the clinic and treatment, stimulation, retrieval and freezing can cost 3000 to 6000 francs per cycle. Storage costs up to 300 francs per year.
The earlier the better
However, the expense can be worthwhile. Social freezing significantly increases the chance of having your own child between the ages of 35 and 43. "The earlier the eggs are retrieved, the greater the chance of pregnancy later on," explains Anna Raggi. The reproductive physician also provides concrete figures: If women between the ages of 30 and 34 have around 30 eggs frozen, their chances of later pregnancy and having a child with these eggs are around 90 percent.
Social freezing gives women more time for family planning - or for their careers.
Motherhood causes career setbacks
Social freezing gives women more time for family planning - or for their careers. Currently, women in Switzerland are on average 31.1 years old when they have their first child. This means that many women become mothers at the age when their careers would also take off. According to the federal higher education statistics, university graduates are on average 27.2 years old when they have their Master's degree in their pocket. The average age for a Bachelor's degree from a university of applied sciences is 26.6 years, and three years more for a Master's degree. While men climb the career ladder, motherhood often slows women down. Though around 75 percent return to work after the birth of their first child, nine out of ten mothers work part-time. In many companies, this results in exclusion from management functions and promotions.
Novartis considers financial support
Postponing motherhood to the late 30s and early 40s through social freezing allows women to advance their careers and move into management positions before having children. Companies have also recognised this. In the USA, many companies cover the costs of social freezing. In 2014, tech companies Apple and Facebook hit the headlines with this practice.
In Switzerland, the business community is cautious. Nestlé and Siemens state on request that social freezing is not an issue for them. The pharmaceutical industry is more open. "Support is offered in a few Roche companies outside Switzerland. We are closely following the social discussion in Switzerland," says Nina Maehlitz, Media Spokesperson Roche Group. Novartis goes one step further: "In Switzerland, we do not yet offer financial support for social freezing. However, we are examining this possibility together with other benefits on a global and local level," explains Anna Schäfers, Senior Manager External Communications.
It's not enough to support women's careers
The involvement of companies in family planning is controversial. Apple and Facebook's decision provoked numerous critics from politics and business: the comments ranged from "egoism" to "presumptuous interference" to "optimisation mania". Anna Raggi is also critical of the support provided by employers. Freezing eggs is not enough to really promote women. On the contrary: "Companies that only support careers through social freezing are acting sexist and neglecting women's natural programme. It's just that women are fertile at a young age." Reconciling career and family is not just about getting pregnant, but also about family life, the reproductive doctor stresses: "Women - and men too - need the opportunity to take on a management role on a part-time basis, they need family-friendly working hours, childcare options and easier promotion opportunities after a break. That is real women's advancement."
There is a lack of education
Although egg freezing is often associated with career, career is not the main reason. This is shown by the results of the 2019 study "Social Freezing - Desire for Children on Ice" by the TA-SWISS Foundation. According to this study, women mainly opt for social freezing if they lack a partner. Anna Raggi names two types of women who are interested in the method. "There are the planners. These are those who know early on that they don't want to have children until a later date, for example, to advance their careers." They make up a maximum of 20 per cent. "The majority of women come to us because they don't have a partner." This second group comes later, usually when they are over the age of 35, which significantly reduces the likelihood of a successful pregnancy. "The option of social freezing is still not very well known. There is a lack of education among younger women," Raggi regrets.
There is currently no uniform procedure for gynaecologists to address social freezing in screening examinations. "The topic is not routinely addressed in consultations," says Irène Dingeldein, gynaecologist and Past President of Gynécologie Suisse. She says this needs to change: "The possibility should be discussed in examinations for childless women from the age of 30."
Anna Raggi would also like to see this. "The earlier you reach women, the better. They get a choice and a kind of safeguard. It's like a gift to yourself that, in the best case, you never need." How many women currently give themselves such a "gift" has not been surveyed. The TA-SWISS study assumes that demand is still low. At a rough estimate, only about 400 women in Switzerland have had their eggs frozen in recent years. However, the study also predicts that this will change. In the future, between 2,000 and 10,000 women in Switzerland will have their eggs frozen every year. The issue would then likely become more of a focus for companies.