Women now have more control over when and how they can get pregnant by “freezing” their eggs, although many Koreans remain wary of the process, government statistics showed.
Egg freezing, also known as oocyte cryopreservation or vitrification, is a technology that extracts, freezes and stores a woman’s eggs (oocytes) – sometimes referred to as a form of biological life insurance.
“The procedure was initially for cancer patients that underwent chemotherapy. These patients could not get pregnant because the cells in their sperm or eggs died during cancer treatment,” said Lee Young-ho from Cha Hospital, one of the nation’s leading egg storage banks. “Egg freezing allowed women to store their reproductive cells before chemotherapy, which is toxic for oocytes.”
The procedure is similar to that for in vitro fertilization. The woman takes two to four weeks of hormone injections and contraception to stop ovulation, and additional hormone injections to ripen multiple eggs. The eggs are then removed with an ultrasound-guided needle through the vagina with the woman under anesthesia.
When she is ready to get pregnant, the eggs are thawed, fertilized and then transferred to the uterus as embryos.
Korean clinics charge a relatively low price of around 2 to 3 million won ($1,845-$2,767), but it differs according to the examination and extraction process, government statistics showed. The cost of storage varies from about 100,000 won to 1 million won, depending on the hospital.
Now, egg freezing is more than just an option for cancer patients; it is also for those who are holding off marriage or children for their education, career, or other personal or financial circumstances.
“More and more people are getting married later, and marriage culture in this country is continually changing. Egg freezing is an alternative to the tradition of getting married and having kids early. I don’t view it negatively but as a way of positive growth,” said an official from Maria Clinic, which also offers egg freezing services.
Despite women getting married later with the average Korean woman getting married at 30 years old in 2015, many Koreans do not view the procedure as favorably as people from other countries, she added.
“In the U.S., big-name companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google offer egg freezing as an employment perk. People from abroad have been okay with the concept, but many Koreans question whether it is essential,” a public relations official from Maria Clinic said.
“We need to change the social perception of egg freezing. I believe we need to move in the same direction of developed countries, which is slowly happening with celebrities like Chae Ri-na and Kim Ji-hyun talking about getting the procedure on TV shows,” she added.
According to a health ministry report submitted to Rep. Nam In-soon of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, 4,586 frozen eggs are stored in 26 embryo-producing medical institutions as of November 2017. There are currently 146 medical institutions that offer oocyte cryopreservation.
Of them, Cha Hospital had the most eggs, storing 1,863 of them. Lee said that it is difficult to compile statistics on the number of patients that visit because there are too few.
“Most days, we do not get any people at all,” another industry official claiming anonymity said.
Although small in number, the new demographic of women interested in storing their eggs to get pregnant on their own terms has become a “blind spot,” according to an official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare Friday, as Korea does not have appropriate, systematic safety maintenance guidelines.
The official said Friday the ministry would set up safety guidelines for businesses that deal with the maintenance, examination and collection, storage methods, and extermination of frozen eggs for unmarried women to prevent mishaps.
The Korea Institute for Public Sperm Bank (KoIPSB) will spearhead the research that will lay the foundation for the direction of the maintenance system, he added.
Rep. Nam said creating a maintenance system of the frozen egg storage project, which has been a safety blind spot, is urgent.
“We need a detailed examination of whether there is practicality in storing frozen eggs considering the physical pain associated with egg collection and fertility drug injection as well as the financial burden of healthy, unmarried women,” she added.
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