When Reem* found herself divorced with no children and over 40, she decided to preserve her eggs. Little did she know that two months later she would remarry.
“I never expected that I would get married so fast and at the time I thought 'what if' – 'what if I got married and wanted to have kids?' I was already 41.”
Reem, a finance officer, did not have children from her previous marriage and had always longed for a child. “It was a friend of mine who advised me to have my eggs preserved because she had done. If she hadn't told me, I would never have even known about it” she said.
Dr Walid Sayed, medical director of HealthPlus Fertility Center, who preserved Reem’s eggs, said that in the past such a procedure would be considered taboo, particularly for unmarried women.
Men can freeze their sperm regardless of whether they are married or not.
“A few years ago, everybody said it was not allowed ... A lot of unmarried women started to ask us about it – about their options. And then in 2008 a federal law came out that prohibited physicians from freezing fertilized eggs, but it didn’t mention anything about the freezing of unfertilised eggs.”
The process of freezing eggs was not as advanced then. “At that time, there was a process called slow freezing, but it wasn’t efficient, we lost many eggs. Let’s say I freeze ten eggs, I would be left with 3, but in 2010 a new technique of fast freezing and preservation was developed with a survival rate of 80 per cent,” he said.
Gradually, Government hospitals began advising female patients undergoing chemotherapy to first freeze their eggs.
“The number of people starting to ask us about it steadily began to increase. Physicians now recommend freezing sperms or eggs before beginning treatment, even if the prognosis for the patient isn’t good.”
The turning point began when unmarried women without health problems, but who are perhaps late to marry or with a low ovarian reserve, began to freeze their eggs.
“The government only recently allowed unmarried women to freeze their eggs. Anyone before who came to me to ask for freezing of the oocyte (egg cell), we told them it wasn’t allowed. But we approached the authorities asking for consent.”
Last year, for the first time, a handful of unmarried Emirati women underwent the procedure.
“We have about twenty cases and it is increasing because it is not only about age, it is about ovarian reserve and this is a new marker. I have a 35-year-old patient and her ovarian reserve is low, so I recommended her to freeze,” Dr Sayed said.
An IVF specialist at the center, Dr Ghada Hosny, said that the patients came in two categories – those who will have to undergo chemotherapy and single women who want to get married later in life, but are concerned that they will “lose their good quality eggs”.
“So she is planning to get married. It is not that she wants to postpone it, but she wants to maybe pursue her career or a scholarship abroad. We encourage them to get married fast, but we can only advise them. We cant force them.”
Consent from the Ministry of Health is first required and there is an additional complication if the woman is unmarried and particularly if she is a virgin.
“If the woman is divorced then it is not a problem because our approach is to collect eggs through the vagina, so if she is divorced it is easy. But if she is still unmarried and a virgin then it is more complicated as through this procedure we could injure the hymen,” Dr Sayed said.
The patient will be given a medical form or certificate stating that she required a hymenectomy. There is also another approach of extracting eggs via the abdomen, which is more invasive and doesn’t guarantee the collection of a large number of eggs.
Lab Director, Dr Irfan Aslam, said: “It is a very invasive procedure. It is a possibility and definitely the approach if the patient insists, but compounding the problem is the fact that the procedure isn’t only done once.”
The centre has performed a few successful egg collections through the abdomen as per the patient’s request.
Reem’s eggs are still being preserved and she might use them in the following months if she is unable to conceive naturally.
“I recommended that she does not use them now. I told her to try to get pregnant herself and if she doesn't, then we will start to assist her. She came here single and got married two months after she preserved her eggs. Our centre was a good omen, we were delighted for her,” he said.
* The subject of this article requested that their name was changed