A project presenting the facts of egg freezing reveals how little we actually know about it.
A new pop-up store appeared inside London's Old Street Station this week, offering the kind of promises you might expect from a beauty brand targeting women with a scientifically dubious anti-ageing product: an elixir to stop time.
But the magic potion on show at "Timeless," as the shop is called, is no wrinkle-fighting serum. The beauty brand is fictional, and all its products not for sale: the whole thing is a creative campaign to inspire discussion about "social" or "elective" egg freezing—where women choose to freeze their eggs for non-medical reasons.
Sarah Douglas and Amanda Gore, directors of creative consultancy The Liminal Space, were particularly intrigued by the issue when Facebook and Apple announced in 2014 that they would offer egg freezing as a staff benefit.
"We were just immediately struck by that," Douglas told me at the pop-up store on its opening day. "It also caused so much conversation in our peer group, as women in our 30s, that we felt it was really pertinent to us and our friends."
But despite their interest, Douglas and Gore found it hard to pin down the facts on egg freezing. With Timeless, they aim to cut through the subjective arguments—which either hail egg freezing as the most liberating reproductive advancement since the pill or condemn it as pressuring women to undergo an invasive procedure to fit a male-oriented society—and provide factual information on what exactly the process involves, how effective it is, and the social factors that impact women's choices. The project is supported by the Wellcome Trust and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
"We thought there was a real gap there to provide well-informed, clear, accessible information about something that could potentially have a huge impact on women's lives," Douglas said. With the clinics they spoke to reporting a surge in women seeking egg freezing for lifestyle rather than medical reasons, it's not a moment too early.
The Timeless displays are simple but arresting. One wall is devoted to a graph representing women's decreasing fertility with age, rendered in numbered cosmetics bottled filled to different levels. The difference between age 20 and 30 is stark.
Douglas and Gore said they were surprised at the lack of knowledge many women and men seem to have about the basic facts of fertility, and pointed out that these numbers were averages and that a woman's eggs may actually be "older" than she thinks. And contrary to what some women they spoke to in their research believed, you can't keep your eggs "young" with a healthy lifestyle.
When it comes to egg freezing itself, the facts are harder to pin down. That's largely because egg freezing, and especially social egg freezing, is quite new: The American Society of Reproductive Medicine only removed the "experimental" label from egg freezing in 2012.
"Not enough women have had their own eggs frozen and then come back to essentially thaw them and use them," said Gore, noting that most of the existing data is taken from either women who had eggs frozen because of known fertility issues or egg donors who are specially screened and usually younger. "So what you find is you get really pessimistic success rates or really optimistic success rates," Gore added.
The most recent freezing technique—"vitrification," which flash-freezes eggs in liquid nitrogen—only saw a first UK baby born through the method in 2010. In total the UK's Human Fertility and Embryology Authority reports that only 20 babies were born from a woman's own frozen eggs up to 2012.
As a result, it's almost impossible to find a reliable figure on success rates, although the Timeless team says clinicians suggest you should freeze 15 for a good chance of a successful pregnancy—the average woman, however, only gets eight out of one round of the process. "Pretty much everybody we've spoken to has had a slightly different version of an answer on the likelihood of success, and that was pretty scary," said Douglas.
The slippery nature of success rates right now certainly dents the appeal of egg freezing as a "just in case" measure—what good is an insurance policy you can't rely on?
Another display in the store details the process of egg freezing, mimicking the "3 simple steps" you might see at a Clinique counter. Turns out these steps aren't so simple—egg freezing requires a regimen of hormone injections and blood tests in weeks leading up to the procedure. In a film made as part of the project, Georgina Williams, who elected to freeze her eggs in her 30s, recalls thinking that egg freezing would mean a month or so of discomfort for a benefit later in life but finding that it would actually require multiple rounds (and a total cost around £10,000). "It had a far more far-reaching impact into my life than what I was expecting," she says.
So why, given the lack of data and potential drawbacks, are women considering egg freezing in such increased numbers? Why are companies supporting them?
The perfume section of the popup beauty salon offers some ideas in its range of scents, "Eau So Pressured." Bottles with names like Fragrance du Independence and Penalty Parfum highlight the social stresses that women are faced with—which pretty much all boil down to the age-old discussion of trying to "have it all" in a society that dictates women should have (and raise) children while making few allowances for parents in the workplace. In the film, Anne Phillips, professor of political science at LSE, describes egg freezing as an "individual solution to what we ought to recognise as a social problem."
I spritz one of the perfumes called Promotion or Procreation and it smells metallic—the scent of "steely determination and hard graft," apparently.
Timeless is running events throughout the week to discuss these issues; Douglas and Gore are particularly keen to break what they see as a taboo around fertility and particularly to bring men as well as women into the conversation. "If you say the word fertility, people assume it's about women," said Gore.
The team behind Timeless insist that they do not want to present an opinion one way or another, but rather to educate about the facts of egg freezing. The parallels with beauty products, however, suggest a product that's promising too much for uncertain results—and the reality that some women will nevertheless be willing to pay the cost to take the chance.
XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.