COMMENT:

Fertility clinics are alien places at the best of times. How did I get here, I wonder while sitting in the waiting room. I don't feel grown-up enough. Surely it was only yesterday that I passed my driving test?

They've become stranger still during lockdown. On my first trip back to the hospital in May to see if I could restart an earlier, aborted cycle of egg-freezing, I smiled at a couple beginning a round of IVF. But it's hard to tell if someone's smiling at you from behind a mask and the husband quickly looked away. It made the clinic seem even colder and I felt a pang of sadness; at least they had one another. I was on my own.

I started mulling over the idea of freezing my eggs two years ago, when I was 33. My boyfriend and I had recently split up and, a month later, I took a friend to the Lister Hospital for her egg freezing operation.

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This is what happens at the end of a cycle: after weeks of injecting your stomach with hormones, you pitch up early one morning for a general anaesthetic before a surgeon pokes a needle through your vaginal wall to hoover the eggs from your ovaries.

Hopefully a good number of eggs, instead of the single one we women mature every month; that's what the hormones are supposed to encourage. Operation over, you go home the same day while the eggs go into the freezer for up to 10 years, waiting to be fertilised as and when you're ready to try for a baby.

My friend's operation made me think about whether I should consider it myself. Was it worth the expense? The ordeal? Weren't the success rates supposed to be low? I started investigating.

It's only in the past decade that egg freezing has really taken off, in the UK and abroad. Around 2012, a new scientific process called vitrification started being used more widely, which froze eggs 600 times faster, meaning there was less chance of damaging them.

This explains why the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority last week unveiled figures showing that the numbers of women choosing to freeze their eggs has increased five-fold since 2013. Back then, there were just 1,500 cycles a year. In 2018, there were 9,000.

I'd heard this sort of data from fertility experts during my research into egg freezing before deciding to do it myself. The numbers were growing, more women were deciding it was the right choice for them. And yet it was still whispered about like a dirty secret. I took my friend home after her operation because she'd told very few people, not even her parents.

When I went to an egg-freezing open evening at a London clinic earlier this year, I watched other women arrive and head straight for the back, as if they wanted to be invisible. A cloak of silent embarrassment hung over the room.

Here was a group of professional women with smart handbags and nice hair behaving as if they were back on the sidelines of a school disco, racked with a sense of failure that they'd "ended up" coming to a talk like this. Because, on one level, coming to a talk like this means acknowledging that you haven't had children the way everyone else seems to.

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I've written about my own egg freezing, and am currently recording a podcast about it, because the idea that it is taboo has to be challenged. It should be challenged given that greater numbers of us are doing it and also because it's 2020, not 1950. Far better, surely, for a woman to take proactive steps with regards to her fertility than have a baby with someone she's not that enamoured by, or – dreaded phrase – "settle", because she doesn't feel like there's any other option.

Egg freezing has become a viable option. As leading fertility professor Geeta Nargund says, "it's the second wave of female emancipation after oral contraceptives in the 1960s". If you're lucky enough to be able to afford it, it gives you more of a choice and more control over your life in a world where women still need to confront big questions – do I want children? If I have a baby, what does it mean for my career? – long before men.

Sure, it comes with no guarantees of a baby, but - for me, at least - freezing is better than doing nothing, better than desperately trying to meet someone in the next couple of years. It gives me breathing space.

And yet it's still stigmatised, in part because of the myths that surround it. Only the other day, a friend messaged, explaining that she was considering freezing her eggs but was concerned that it would cost her "$38,100 (£20,000), and the success rates don't seem that great?"

Firstly, the cost: yes, it's expensive, although not quite as bad as my friend thought. By the time I'm through with my first round, it will have set me back around $8,579 (£4,500). You need multiple trips to the clinic, scans, blood tests. Plus the vials and needles of expensive drugs. Nothing comes cheap. Most clinics offer three cycles for around $19,061 (£10,000), three being the number you may need to get the magic total of 20 eggs that experts recommend.

Secondly, the success rates. Egg freezing is often referred to as an "insurance policy" which is misleading because, unless you've been mis-sold, an insurance policy should pay out in the end. If you're my age (35) and freeze between 10 and 20 eggs, you have between 70 and 90 per cent chance of a baby at a later stage. It might sound dicey but the truth is, if you're a 35-year-old couple, you've only got a 30 per cent chance of conceiving naturally in any given month anyway.

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Freeze the same number of eggs when you're 40 and your chances of a baby fall to between 30 and 50 per cent because the quality has deteriorated. Early 30s would be even better than 35, but fewer women may be able to afford it then and, of course, they've still got plenty of time to meet someone. Basically, working out the "best" age to do isn't simple.

It's also worth remembering that, under British law, eggs can only be stored for 10 years, an arbitrary time period set in 2008. This means it's hardly worth a 30-year-old considering freezing, because her eggs would have to be destroyed when she hits 40. Promisingly, last year a campaign was launched by the Progress Educational Trust to extend this further, perhaps on a rolling 10-year basis, and the Government agreed to launch a consultation in February.

I don't mean to sound like a snake-oil salesman. As a teenager, I assumed I'd be married by 30, with several children and a Labrador. I'm grateful that life has taken me a different route but deciding to freeze my eggs was a difficult decision, which I brooded over for a year. My hope is that these new figures give other women more confidence about freezing, and if greater numbers do it then perhaps the costs will come down, encouraging yet more women - and so on.

Moreover, my own parents couldn't have been more encouraging. They've practically bought a highchair for when I go to stay with them, and I keep having to remind them it's just the eggs for now …

Having started one cycle in early March, which had to be abandoned when lockdown kicked in, I've now begun the process again and am keen to speed through the injections and get on with my operation. Perhaps my shoulders will drop a bit after that. Like I said, freezing is no insurance policy, but it certainly feels pretty liberating to me.