Inside the lab at Olive Fertility Centre in Vancouver, hundreds of unfertilized human eggs are nesting in round tanks full of cold liquid nitrogen.
For some, the frozen eggs could fulfil dreams of parenthood in years to come.
“Honestly, I’m so grateful for science,” said Natalie Grunberg-Ferreira, 47, who conceived two sons from the eggs she froze at the fertility clinic.
Grunberg-Ferreira is not alone. Statistics show egg freezing treatments have soared across Canada in the last decade.
The procedure — where a person’s eggs are extracted from their ovaries, frozen and stored — allows a person to press pause on parenthood, for decades if they wish, until they feel they are ready to conceive.
“They’re using this as a tool to buy them opportunity … and a little bit more control,” said Dr. Niamh Tallon, infertility and egg freezing specialist at Olive, which accepts patients up to age 50 as candidates for treatment.
Across Canada, people sought 94 egg-freezing treatments in 2013. By 2022, that grew to more than 1,524 treatments, according to the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society. The figures include new patients and people returning to do treatments, also called cycles.
While studies on the increase in egg-freezing treatments are limited, experts cite a number of potential reasons, including some people being unable to find a suitable partner, or some waiting until they’re more financially secure before having a child.
One researcher says she noticed a spike in egg freezing treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Samantha Yee, a psychosocial researcher at the CReATe Fertility Centre in Toronto, suggests forced isolation may have prompted people to do more soul searching about their futures and consider egg freezing.
“There’s a drastic increase,” Yee said.
But egg freezing is expensive, averaging about $12,000 to $15,000 a cycle, which can include medications, storage fees and costs associated with the eventual defrosting, fertilizing and transferring of the embryos back into the body.
The high price tag is why many advocates say they’d like to see employers and even governments provide more financial support for treatments.
‘A good idea and really empowering’
Looking at a baby album in her Victoria living room, Grunberg-Ferreira smiles at black and white scans of her embryos.
“Two perfect embryos that became two wonderful children,” she said. The two treatments cost around $40,000 in total.
Grunberg-Ferreira froze her eggs at age 37 because she couldn’t find a partner with whom to share parenthood. Three years later, her birthday wish was to thaw them and become a single mother.
“I really thought that was a good idea and really empowering,” said Grunberg-Ferreira.
In a twist of fate, Grunberg-Ferreira met the man who would become her husband after her first son was born. Now, they’re a family of four.
Portraits of her sons, age five and two, decorate a mantle in their home.
One research paper has shown that out of 224 women, a majority — 89 per cent — froze their eggs because they were single and had not found a partner, says Yee, who authored the study.
‘A safety net’
Kelsey Edgeworth, a Vancouver nurse, says she froze her eggs because she’s not sure she wants children.
While working at Olive Clinic, Edgeworth, 32, found out she has a lower egg reserve for her age, which can make conceiving harder down the road. She decided to freeze her eggs in case she changes her mind about parenthood.
“It’s still a safety net I appreciate,” said Edgeworth.
Egg freezing doesn’t guarantee a baby, but chances of conceiving are higher if a person freezes their eggs when they are younger, said Dr. Tallon.
For example, if a patient freezes their eggs at 38, and if they have 10 eggs — the number could vary, with some having more eggs, or fewer at that age — the chances of them giving birth is 40 per cent, compared to 60 per cent for someone with the same number of eggs in their early 30s, Dr. Tallon said.
Edgeworth says her treatment costs were partly covered by Olive as a taxable benefit because she works there.
She says she didn’t get medical coverage from the province because B.C. — as well as Alberta, PEI, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories — doesn’t publicly fund elective egg freezing.
For people experiencing infertility, Ontario covers one cycle of egg freezing, while Quebec covers egg freezing and storage. Newfoundland and Labrador offers a subsidy of up to $15,000 for egg freezing as part of its IVF (in vitro fertilization) Subsidy Program for a maximum of three treatments. Nova Scotia and Manitoba also offer a tax credit of up to 40 per cent of treatment costs, including IVF.
Governments need to do more, advocate says
People may also be freezing their eggs because more employers are offering fertility benefits, says Tara Wood with Conceivable Dreams, which advocates for more accessible fertility treatment.
For example, the University of British Columbia recently started offering coverage up to $40,000 for fertility treatments, including egg freezing. Scotiabank, CIBC and Telus also provide some coverage for the treatment.
But Wood says it’s not enough, noting that a new study found that of almost 1,000 Canadian employers, 53 per cent don’t offer fertility benefits.
As a result, many can’t afford to pay for drugs or treatment — or are taking on second jobs at workplaces like Starbucks that offer those benefits, Wood says.
She says it’s important for employers and governments to offer more support for family planning, as one in six couples face infertility in Canada.
“Every day, I have people emailing me asking for help, like, ‘Do you have any money? Is there a grant?'” said Wood.
“We need help creating families.”