Eggs on Ice See You Later, Baby

Egg freezing is already popular in the U.S. and slowly becoming an option for women in Germany. Whether it is liberating for women, or ultimately puts more pressure on them to prioritze their careers is hotly debated.
Egg freezing is slowly catching on in Germany.

Back in April, 28-year-old Pia Poppenreiter stepped into a fertility clinic in Potsdam, on the outskirts of Berlin. A package of 10 hormone injections was ready for her, to be kept cool and administered once a day, always at the same time.

It was an unusual 10 days, especially for the people around the young entrepreneur. Sometimes she had to interrupt a meeting to inject herself or explain to the airport security guy why she needed to take a syringe and needles onto the plane.

The eleventh day was the decisive one. A woman’s body normally produces one egg a month, but with the help of the hormone injections, Ms. Poppenreiter was able to produce 20 in one go. She took a half day off work to visit her gynecologist, where she was fully anaesthetized and had 15 eggs removed from her ovaries.

While her eggs were being transported to their special deep-freeze facility, Ms. Poppenreiter was already on her way back to work – she is setting up a second business and it’s not possible to take time off, even for family planning reasons.

Originally developed for young cancer sufferers, rendered infertile after radiation treatment, egg freezing is now landing on the wish lists of young women across the country. It is becoming a viable option for women who no longer want to be victims of the exhausting child-versus-career question, allowing them to put off having kids until an age when the chances of a successful natural pregnancy would have diminished.

Of course, there is a lot of skepticism in people when it comes to egg freezing. But then that was also the case with the contraceptive pill and IVF. Mathias Freund, Co-founder, Seracell

In the United States, big companies like Apple and Facebook already offer to cover some of the costs of the egg-freezing process for their female employees. Facebook, for example offers up to $20,000, or €18,000, to cover the process. This is seen as part of a growing trend to attract more women to the predominantly male companies in Silicon Valley.

Mathias Freund, the co-founder of Seracell, is leading the trend in Germany. Seracell, based in Rostock in northeastern Germany and affiliated with Rostock University, is the country's first high-tech egg storage facility.

Mr. Freund estimates that soon several thousand women in Germany will undergo this procedure every year, and by 2020 the figure could reach 10,000.

“Biologically, the age of women at the birth of their first child is already too high,” said Mr. Freund.  In Germany, the average age of first-time mothers is 30.5 years old.

In the last year, around 500 women opted to store their eggs, according to experts in this field, but this figure is expected to rise exponentially, and in a very short time frame too, as the country's fertility clinics pounce on a growing business opportunity.

At an average price of €3,500 to €4,000 per procedure, the market value would be around €40 million.

 

Mathias Freund, the professor leading the egg-freezing trend at Seracell.

 

Mr. Freund and Seracell co-founder Hans-Dieter Kleine amassed a lot of experience in stemcell medicine before they founded Seracell, which focused initially on storing umbilical cord blood. Around 60,000 umbilical cord transplants are stored in Rostock.

For a fixed price of €2,500 Seracell offers egg harvesting at partnering fertility clinics, transport of the eggs to Rostock, preservation at minus-196 degrees Celsius (minus-384 degrees Fahrenheit), in liquid nitrogen tanks, and one year of storage. After the first year, keeping the eggs there costs €290 a year.

Seracell works with online financial brokers to help young women afford the procedure. For example, they can borrow the money at a 4 percent interest rate with Lendico, a peer-to-peer lending platform founded by incubator and venture capitalist firm Rocket Internet.

But these baseline costs can quickly escalate. Gynecologist Peter Syndow, who has a practice in central Berlin, told Handelsblatt that if a women is older when she freezes her eggs, she will probably have to take more than once course of hormones because not so many eggs are maturing and they are not as fertile any more. Including the expensive hormones, the cost can increase to up to €10,000 easily before the eggs are put on ice, he said.

Seracell's business model is to appeal to younger women, who either haven’t met the right partner with whom to have children or, or who, after years of study, need to put all their energies into their careers.

It is a potentially huge market, and one that big fertility clinics, like Vivaneo, are keen to get in on. Vivaneo has fertility centers in Wiesbaden, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Copenhagen in Denmark and Leidendorp in the Netherlands and wants to buy more across Germany and Europe to add to its network.

German health insurance does not currently cover this process. If a woman wants to get pregnant using her frozen eggs, she has to plan for another several thousand euros for in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

In the United States, where the procedure is more common and the first generation of children from frozen eggs has already been born, medical specialists estimate it takes eight to 12 eggs to yield one successful pregnancy.

“Of course, there is a lot of skepticism when it comes to egg freezing. But then that was also the case with the contraceptive pill and IVF,” said Mr. Freund.

The news last year that Silicon Valley was actively supporting women putting their eggs on ice ignited a huge debate in Germany. Anja Weusthoff, head of women and familiy politics on the executive board of the Trade Union Federation, said on a radio show that family planning must not change from being a personal decision to a business one. She believes this problem would be offloaded onto women."We are seeing a tendency to blur the borders between work and private life," said Ms. Weusthoff.

Likewise family experts from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party (CDU), who described the financial support of companies towards women's egg freezing, as "immoral; a disastrous move sociopolitically and unacceptable from a family politics point of view."

Putting one’s eggs in storage also suggests that there is a perfect time to start a family and women only have themselves to blame if they expect any flexibility from university professors or employers in their younger years.

What sounds, 50 years after the invention of the birth control pill, like another liberating step for women, is not completely failsafe. The pill guaranteed protection against having children, while the frozen eggs seem to promise children but in fact cannot guarantee them.

Women must act in their 20's and early 30's to ensure they catch the eggs when they are at their healthiest. Gynecologist Mr. Syndow says that freezing eggs after the age of 35 does not guarantee a successful pregnancy. “You can’t freeze all your wishes,” he said.

Video: Facebook and Apple's announcement that it would fund egg-freezing for their employees ignited a global debate.

This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche business weekly. To contact the writer: [email protected]