There’s an essay in this week’s Newsweek that I find vaguely troubling. It’s by a young woman, Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, and it’s called “Why I Froze My Eggs.” It’s exactly what the title suggests.
Freezing eggs, as opposed to freezing sperm or embryos, has only become truly practical recently. It is, however, expensive–Lehmann-Haupt says upwards of $15,000–and that does not include the monthly freezer storage charges. In addition, the process of harvesting the eggs to be frozen, which Lehmann-Haupt describes, is intrusive and stressful: In order to harvest a reasonable number of eggs, you need to stimulate super-ovulation, which involves injection of specific drugs for a period of time. (This is a fairly routine procedure in infertility treatment. It’s also, I think, what an egg donor who is selling her eggs experiences. I wonder if the 15K cost is typical of those procedures?)
The obvious question is why go through all this, if it isn’t to make money as an egg donor? One circumstance under which it’s easy to imagine electing to do this is if a young woman were undergoing medical treatment–say chemotherapy–that might compromise her ability to produce eggs in the future. She might well elect to have some of her eggs frozen for her future use.
Men have frozen sperm for this reason for a long time. (I recently recounted an instance where the sperm was successfully used 22 years after harvest.)
But this isn’t Lehmann-Haupt’s circumstance. She’s healthy, but she’s 35 and single. She hopes to marry and have children, but she hasn’t yet found the right man. So she is right for the pitch the company involved–Extend Fertility–is making. It’s all about slowing down, perhaps even halting, the inevitable ticking of that biological clock. This use of the technology troubles me.
It isn’t that Lehmann-Haupt’s choice seems unreasonable. To the contrary, what troubles me is that it seems reasonble under all of the circumstances.
Consider the things that contribute to her dilemma. She doesn’t want to raise a child on her own. Now I’m not suggesting that being a single mother is for everyone–I don’t think it is. But there are many ways that single-motherhood could be made a more feasible choice. If we did that, then not having met the right man would be less critical in deciding when to have children, and there would be less reason to freeze the eggs.
But having children, whether as a single mother or a coupled mother, also disrupts ones career. Thus, one might freeze eggs so that you can get your career properly on track first and then have the kids.
But that, as the feminist doctor in the essay says, is accepting the way we have structured child-rearing and work in our society. We’ve arranged things–or let them be arranged–so that it is very hard to be a good parent (a good mother?) and build a good career at the same time. One has to come before the other and the one that has to come first is career. I suspect that the need to choose between career and parenthood has come to seem natural and inevitable to many of us, but I’m not actually convinced that it has to be that way.
I don’t mean to critique Lehmann-Haupt’s particular decision. She’s making an individual choice in a social context that she cannot, by herself, change. It’s rather that I am troubled that we live in a world where her response could seem a reasonable one. I’m troubled that a for-profit company is out there making money by playing up the anxieties women suffer because of these social structures.
Freezing eggs isn’t going to help us undo the structures that create the underlying problem. At best, freezing the eggs seems to me to be a partial, purely individual solution. It’s also one that will only be available to a very small number of women who can pay the cost. For everyone else, the problem remains.
To me the main point of the essay isn’t that Lehmann-Haupt had the opportunity to freeze her eggs or that she decided to do it. Instead, it is that young women are so constrained in their choices.
It’s also interesting to me that this seems to me to be a women’s problem. What I mean is men do not seem to freeze their sperm for this reason and no one is out there trying to persuade them to. Perhaps this is because there’s been a sense that men don’t face a biological clock. It now appears that they actually may. That’s double the market for Extended Fertility.