I want women to know that freezing your eggs is an empowering choice

By Clara How, Sep 19, 2019

Juhee An has always wanted a child of her own. When she turned 40, she thought the only option was to return to her home country of South Korea to freeze her eggs — only to be told that the success rate was too low for her to do so. It was a bitter pill to swallow. 

She realised then that more women like herself need to know their options early when it comes to fertility. Egg freezing shouldn’t be done as a last resort or at the last minute — it can be considered as a viable option for any woman who seeks to have a biological child in the future. 

Egg freezing is a reproductive procedure where a woman’s eggs are extracted, frozen and stored for future use. A frozen egg can be thawed and used for in vitro fertilisation, also known as IVF (where the egg and sperm are combined outside of the body). Fertilised eggs are then transferred to the uterus, and can result in pregnancy. The procedure is currently not legalised in Singapore (except on medical grounds), with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong commenting in 2016 that it is a decision weighed by medical, social and ethical implications. 

Believing that more discussions should be had about fertility, Juhee left her banking job to start a company, Freedom Edge. Her mission: to educate more women about what egg freezing is, show why it’s empowering to take control of your body, and to facilitate the trip abroad for those willing to take that chance.

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I’m Juhee, and I’m 41 years old. Four years ago, I first had the idea of freezing my eggs. My sister was the one who suggested it, so I did my research, calculated the odds, and took two weeks of leave to fly to Korea (I have been working in Singapore for the past 13 years). After undergoing a fertility check at a clinic, I was told at the hospital that my Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) levels were borderline. 

For egg freezing to be successful, it requires a certain level of AMH, which indicates the ovarian reserve. If I wanted to do the procedure, I would need to do it now, otherwise it might be too late if I waited. But I hesitated. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of women freezing their eggs around the world. But at that time, there was less data than we have now. What was available online indicated low success rates, sceptical articles, or over-promising promotional content. So I figured, why should I spend all that money (without government subsidy, it would have cost me US$7,000 in Korea) to bet on such small odds? Wouldn’t it be easier to continue dating like what I had already been doing, and go down the traditional route of finding a man, and having a child? 

This picture was taken one day before my hospital visit in Korea.

This picture was taken one day before my hospital visit in Korea.

I thought I had made the smart decision. I dated diligently, using Tinder and all other possible ways, hoping to find a partner that I could eventually marry and have children with. But it didn’t happen. 

When I hit 40, I realised: “Now is the time.” There was more data, technology had improved, hospitals were more equipped and there were more doctors specialising in egg freezing and IVF. I chose a hospital in Korea, but when I went for my fertility check, it was not good news. I was told that not only were my AMH levels too low and I only had two follicles in sight, but I had cysts in my ovaries. 

It wasn’t completely a lost cause: she said I could try multiple rounds of freezing my eggs to collect about 15 eggs. But it would mean travelling many times to Korea, and as a working professional, I wasn’t sure if that was possible for me.

I left the doctor’s office, sat down and cried. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I absolutely love children and have always wanted one of my own.

When I was in university I took a second job in a childcare centre, and for my 36th and 40th birthday party I organised charity events to raise money for the Children’s Society of Singapore.

With all my friends at my 40th birthday party!

With all my friends at my 40th birthday party!

I’ve volunteered with autistic children. I genuinely love being around kids. I’m also a really healthy person. I exercise every day, I eat well, I’m not particularly stressed and have a generally positive attitude. I never expected this to happen to me. 

I had always been career focused and have loved every job that I’ve had. But if I don’t have a child of my own, these things seem less important. I can always earn the money back — what’s more important is that I speak about this issue with more women. 

I had believed that the “natural” way of finding a partner and having a baby was better, but now I cannot help but think of all the “what if’s”. What if I had gone ahead and froze my eggs in 2015? Even if the eggs failed, at least I would have known that I tried all the possibilities presented to me. 

 I wished there had been someone who knew the subject well or who had gone through the process to tell me what it would be like, or to tell me that egg freezing is a form of personal investment to give you peace of mind in the context of a changing society. But at that time, there was nobody.

This made me realise that I wanted to be this person, to tell people about their options and give them this education.

 I noticed that there was a huge distinction between Korea and Singapore when it comes to knowledge about fertility. Because Korea has an extremely low fertility rate and the government has offered subsidies and support for IVF, there is a demand for egg freezing in the country. But in Singapore, I was surprised that people don’t always know what egg freezing is. Sometimes they say, “Oh yes, I’ve heard of it” when you explain it further, but they don’t immediately catch the gist.

I can see why. Because egg freezing is not legal in Singapore, naturally not many Singaporeans have gone through it. This means not many people talk about it, and there’s not a lot of information out there.

What you get would be on the Internet, from countries like the United States or liberal European countries. What’s more, in Asia, women tend to feel ashamed due to the stigma surrounding fertility problems. 

 There is also talk about how egg freezing does not guarantee a baby. Egg freezing should not be seen as “insurance”, because unlike traditional insurance, you don’t get guaranteed returns. It also hinges on other factors like the IVF procedure, and the quality of eggs.

 All this is true. Success rates are strongly correlated to age. But to me, it’s all about creating and having that chance to take advantage of current and future medical science.

Many Singaporeans don’t always have an open discussion about fertility issues. If someone were to say that she froze her eggs, public reaction tends to be: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you have a child the ‘normal’ way?” But that’s not always true.

You might not be ready at this point to have a child. You might not have met a suitable partner. Instead of worrying about our biological clock, we should feel empowered to take the situation into our own hands and do something for ourselves. I figured, if I can do something that can encourage more discussion in Singapore, then maybe the government can hear that egg freezing is a fertility option that should not be ignored. Hopefully, they will change their stance in the future.

 When I received the news that I could not freeze my eggs, I was working in wealth management at a bank. It was a stable job, but I wasn’t happy because of the work environment, and felt like I had nothing more to learn. This, combined with my new passion to help other women so they don’t end up in my situation where I regret not taking that step, made me realise that it was time to leave my job and fulfil this purpose.

 So I registered a company called Freedom Edge, a website and service to help facilitate women on their journey to explore their options on egg freezing. 

I came up with the name because I believe knowing your options liberates women. It makes them feel free. I don’t want to just provide information: I want to help people to freeze their eggs in a place they feel comfortable with, where they can trust that they are in good hands.

When you feel empowered, you feel like you have the upper hand, like you have an edge.

 The process is simple. When someone reaches out to me, the first step is a face-to-face chat with me. I will share my experience, as well as give more details about what the process of egg freezing is like: what happens in the hospital, when results are released, and what’s involved with hormone injections. I would recommend setting aside two weeks for the entire process.

 If a client wants to proceed, I will arrange airport transfers for her to travel to Korea (flights and accommodation are booked on their own expense). I may sound biased, but I truly believe that Korea is a good option for conducting egg freezing, in terms of infrastructure and medical technology. I did my research, and found out that Korean hospitals need to fulfil 153 criteria in order for them to accept foreign patients, which shows that they have sufficient checks in place.

 I have partnerships with three hospitals in Korea. Fertility clinics are different on many levels: their medical protocols, levels of individual attention provided, lab quality, price, overall competency, to name a few. I chose these three for their history, massive track records, flexibility and capability to handle foreign patients. Once the client is committed, we take a deposit (to be returned once the trip is complete) and coordinate with a hospital to make arrangements. 

At this point in time, I am speaking with a handful of women who are interested. I have not sent anyone to Korea yet, but a few have gone for fertility check-ups in Singapore as it was deemed necessary. 

 During my research, I interviewed women who have gone through egg freezing who expressed a wish that they conditioned their body better. I’ve hired a wellness expert or dietitian to help in this aspect. I would also love to share some fun activities to do in Korea! After all, this trip should celebrate you and your courageous journey. 

Right now, I’m not accepting any fees from these women. This might change in the future, but for now, this is how I choose to do things. In terms of revenue, the hospital gives me a cut from the charges on patients.

 I’m running on my life savings at the moment, thanks to long careers in head hunting and banking. People ask me why I left such a comfortable job. It’s simple: I want to wake up to purpose. When I first started my banking job, I was so excited. I would wake up with my heart pumping, and find good options to help clients. That’s how it is for me now. I wake up at 6am, head to the gym, and then work until night. 

There is so much more that can be done about female healthcare, and one of the reasons why I am so passionate about fertility is the knowledge that this is a problem that is not going to go away. So I am expanding my team, so we can develop events, host workshops, create newsletters and female health-related articles on our website. 

 One thing that I’m aware of and want to work on is how to reduce some of the cost for the procedure. In the States, it would cost US$13-15,000. I’ve read that large corporations like Facebook and Apple offer egg freezing and storage as initiatives for their employees, with Facebook offering up to US$20,000 for egg freezing. Approaching companies to provide an employee benefit is something that I’m considering. I’m also thinking about talking to insurance companies to figure out if there is anything that can be done.

 There’s a lot to do, but I want to reach out to as many women as possible. I want every woman to know they have a choice, and prepare early.

As for me, I’m still dating and still hoping that one day I can have my own child. I still feel envious when I see people around me who are mums. It’s something that I bring up early to the guy I’m dating, if I feel comfortable enough with him. Of course, I also look for a man whom I think will be a good father. 

I know the chances are extremely slim, and while you do hear of women in their 40s bearing children, they are definitely not the majority. My parents used to ask me to settle down and get married, but having lived abroad for so long, they now support me in what I want to do. They encourage me to follow my dreams and do what I think is right.

I still long to go through the process of giving birth, have a screaming baby, raise a child. Until I hit menopause, that’s the hope for me. If it doesn’t happen by then, I will consider adoption.

Choosing to put myself out there to sound the alarm is the only thing I can think of at the moment, but my work with Freedom Edge is just the beginning of a greater discussion about fertility. Let me alert other women. Let me help.

 

Writer's Note: 
For more information about Juhee and her work, visit www.freedomedge.co. 

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