Stacy Wright is only 27, but for half her life, her reproductive system has been a battleground. A child psychologist in Portage, Mich., she suffers frequent excruciating pelvic pain and has undergone a dozen operations to excise cysts, scar tissue and an ovary. Finally diagnosed with endometriosis last November, she will likely need further surgery, either the removal of her remaining ovary or a full hysterectomy. Still, Wright clings passionately to her dream: “I want one miracle, one moment to be normal,” says Wright, who is single and rarely dates because of her physical woes. “I want to have a baby.”
In a last-ditch effort to keep that hope alive, she is pursuing a path that takes her to the frontier of reproductive science: freezing her unfertilized eggs for later use. On May 16 Wright became the inaugural patient of the CHA Fertility Center in Los Angeles, the nation’s first commercial egg-freezing facility, when the clinic’s medical director, reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Thomas Kim, 44, extracted nine of her eggs and froze them in liquid nitrogen. First done successfully in Australia 18 years ago, egg-freezing is widely considered the great hope for several groups of women: those like Wright, who face fertility-destroying illnesses but lack a partner to help them conceive; those with fertility problems whose religious convictions prohibit them from freezing embryos; and single women who want to delay childbearing until they find a mate or reach career goals but worry that by then their eggs will no longer be viable. Experts caution that the technique remains in its infancy. An estimated 70 children worldwide have been born from frozen eggs; it’s too early to tell how the birth rate compares to the Centers for Disease Control figure of 18 percent for frozen embryos.
That isn’t stopping Wright, who heard about Kim’s clinic from her reproductive endocrinologist in Kalamazoo. Egg-freezing could offer her two routes to biological motherhood: If she loses her ovary but retains her uterus, she can undergo in vitro fertilization and carry a child; if she has the hysterectomy, a surrogate mother could deliver a child using embryos from Wright’s fertilized eggs. The procedure cost Wright $8,000, including five years of egg storage, little of which is covered by insurance. “I so desperately want it to work for her,” says her mother, Brenda, 53, a photographer. “I don’t want Stacy to be disappointed.”
Before long Wright will have to have additional eggs harvested. “Our goal is to store about 20, because during the freezing process we lose about 50 percent,” Kim explains. Frozen sperm or embryos can keep for decades, but eggs pose special problems because they contain a great deal of water, which can freeze into ice crystals that damage the cells. Several processes are being developed to extract water from egg cells before crystals form, but no method is near foolproof. That rankles some critics, who think egg-freezing is being prematurely hyped.
“To tell a woman that she should spend $10,000 to freeze eggs in order to safeguard her reproductive future is irresponsible at this point,” says Dr. Norbert Gleicher, medical director of the Center for Human Reproduction, a fertility center in New York City and Chicago. “Nobody has yet gone beyond what we call sporadic clinical success.” Kim, who opened his clinic in response to high demand and improved technology, counters that he carefully screens patients and educates them about the procedure. “I believe in laying out the facts,” he says. “The choice is ultimately up to the patient, as long as she understands the odds.”
To many women the risk seems worthwhile, especially when their lives don’t jibe with their maternal instincts. “I wasn’t in a solid marriage relationship, and I heard my clock ticking very loudly,” says Julia Goetz, 38, a Santa Cruz, Calif., real estate agent who had 30 eggs frozen last October. Goetz, in fact, is on the high end of the age scale recommended for egg-freezing. “The quality of eggs after the age of 35 diminishes significantly, and after 38 it goes down drastically,” says Goetz’s physician Dr. Kevin Winslow, director of the noncommercial Florida Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Jacksonville, who has brought 18 babies into the world using frozen eggs. “Those women are going to have a hard time getting pregnant.”
One of Winslow’s first egg-freezing clients, Mitzi Hamby of Chattanooga, was 35 when she underwent the procedure in 1998—and she’s overjoyed with the results: twins Mckenzie and Mary Beth, now 3. “They’re the center of our lives,” says Mitzi, 39, a home-maker. She and her husband, Marty, 43, who arranges music for choirs and church orchestras, tried for nine years to conceive before coming to Winslow’s clinic for in vitro fertilization. (Marty’s sperm-producing ability was damaged before birth when his mother took the antimiscarriage drug DES.) The treatment worked, but there were 15 eggs left over. The Hambys could have fertilized them and frozen the embryos, but eventually at least some of those extras would have been discarded or donated to other couples. Marty’s religious beliefs ruled out the first option. As to the second, says Mitzi: “For the rest of my life I would have looked for my children.”
Then a friend suggested she freeze the eggs—and Winslow happily complied. When Mitzi suffered a miscarriage in February 1998, the doctor thawed out the 15 eggs; four were suitable for fertilization and implantation, and two of those took. Today Mckenzie and Mary Beth are “so full of energy and so smart,” says Marty. “And they’re healthy as little horses.”
That seems to be the case with most children born through the technique to date, a finding that has begun to allay fears that freezing eggs could cause chromosomal damage. But, “Winslow warns, “until several thousand babies have been followed through adolescence, we’re not going to be able to absolutely testify to the safety of it.”
Stacy Wright fully intends that one of those several thousand children will be hers. Her life has been all about overcoming obstacles. Born to Brenda and Larry, 57, a retired auto worker, who are now divorced, Stacy had a wandering eye that required two surgeries and a patch she wore until age 4. “They wouldn’t let her start kindergarten because her hand-eye coordination was so bad,” says Brenda. “She had to be in special classes.”
Growing up in rural Climax, Mich., Wright held part-time jobs all through high school and Spring Arbor College in Battle Creek, Mich., She went on to earn a master’s degree from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. All this she achieved despite mounting physical anguish. Wright underwent her first laparoscopic surgery at 13 to remove a cyst. Later a surgeon removed her appendix, which was wrapped around her right ovary. A subsequent procedure revealed that the ovary was stuck to her spine. Finally, a cyst showed up on the ovary, and it was removed entirely.
Next to those ordeals, the egg-harvesting was not so painful. Wright, who took drugs to boost her egg production, was anesthetized in a small operating room while Kim inserted an ultrasound probe through her vagina and extracted the eggs. “We try to time it to retrieve as many eggs as we can,” says the Korean-born physician, a married father of two who earned his M.D. at Loyola University in Chicago. Afterward Kim reported to Wright’s mother and stepfather, quality-assurance engineer Jerry Baker, 60, that six mature eggs were retrieved, plus another three whose maturity was uncertain. “Until we thaw them,” he says, “we just don’t know the exact details.”
Wright has no doubt that her harvest will bear fruit. “I’m very excited about my nine eggs, and I can’t wait to come back and do it again so that I’ll have 18,” she says. “Maybe,” she adds with a smile, “I can have two babies.”
Giovanna Breu in Los Angeles and Chattanooga