Freezing Eggs and Illusory Choices

This is a follow-up to a post from a last week.  That post (as you’ll see if you go back to it) was a long delayed response to a Fresh Air interview entitled “The Grayest Generation.”    It’s an interview with Judith Shulevitz who wrote an article in The New Republic about older parenthood.   Shulevitz is concerned because, as it says on the NPR website:

the growing trend toward later parenthood since 1970 coincides with a rise in neurocognitive and developmental disorders among children.

Notably Shulevitz is concerned not only with maternal age but also paternal age.   While the biological clock may not work quite the same way for men–they don’t face the same issues of declining fertility–older male genetic parents may be more likely to produce children with neurocognitive disorders.   Thus the trend for women to defer child-bearing (which I strongly suspect also means that men deferring child-producing) may have some serious consequences.

But handily enough, the ART industry stands ready with an answer:  Freeze your own (young healthy) gametes for later use.   This may address the issues Shulevitz identifies because it isn’t actually the age of the people raising the child that she’s concerned with, it’s the age the people who produced the gametes were at the time the gametes were produced.   Gametes taken from a twenty year old and frozen for twenty years are in essence still twenty and so are in better condition than are gametes taken from the same person she/he is forty.    At least, this is the idea.    Thus it appears that being able to freeze gametes allows people to choose to defer childbearing and still have genetically related children without running the risks occasioned by the use of their own older gametes.

I want to think about what this means particularly for women.  Surely it means that women can have it all.   First you freeze your eggs.  Then you can get your career established in your twenties/thirties (and I am thinking here of a career in law since I teach law school, but it could be another profession) knowing that your eggs are frozen and waiting for when you are ready to have children.    It allows women to choose to freely choose to defer parenthood and to make their mark in the workplace first.

But you know, I’m deeply skeptical of the claim that one can have it all.   And I find myself wondering if young women beginning a career in law or in other professions really do have new choices given the recent advances in technology.  (It has only become possible to reliably freeze/thaw eggs recently.)

Here’s what I worry about.  Can young women choose to have children when they’re young?   Or, now that they can safely defer parenthood, do they pretty much have to do that?  Won’t employers–at least some of them–think about it this way:   If a young women can safely defer parenthood to get her career started and she chooses not to, then doesn’t that choice show that she’s not really committed to that career?   Because if she really were committed to the career, she defer having children.   It’s all about priorities, right?   So maybe we shouldn’t hire women having kids young.

Notice the role technology plays here.   Once you might explain that although you loved your work, you had to have while you were still young because 1) if you didn’t have them young you might not have them at all and 2) the rate of birth defects rises with maternal age.   Now those “excuses” don’t work any more.   You can safely choose to wait till you’re forty-five so you can be held responsible for the decision not to do so.

And so I cannot help but wonder if the “choice” offered is an illusion.  A woman serious about her career cannot choose to have children in her twenties.

I don’t really think the problem is the technology, of course.  It’s the workplace.   So much about the organization of labor and childcare in the US is hostile to working parents.    Think about paid family leave–something which clearly enables people to have jobs and children.  You’ll find it virtually everywhere in the world, but not here.    Far too many people here have to choose between fully involved parenthood and rewarding work.   Until we insist that people should be entitled to have both, all the new technology will just fit right into the old patterns of false choices.

14 responses to “Freezing Eggs and Illusory Choices

  1. At least in the part of the country where I live, the trend seems towards having kids later even without a demanding career. I think the only person I knew who had a child in their early 20s had an unplanned pregnancy. I don’t have a demanding career, so I’d much rather have a child while I have the energy of a younger person and while my parents (the only grandparents) are younger and can have more of a relationship with the child, and where I still have something of a window to have a second child if finances change without having a small age gap. I know I can freeze whatever embryos I have left for years, but I don’t think I’d have a second child much later than 35 even with that. And honestly people seem shocked I want a kid in my 20s, that I’m kind of young even if I wasn’t single. I don’t get it. I have no desire to be pregnant or chase after a toddler at 40.

  2. the vast majority of colleagues and supervisors that i have worked for had kids. you seem to be talking about a very small select group of professions. even of those, think of women like sarah palin who has not one or two children but five. “having it all” nowadays i dont think is about career and motherhood. its about career, motherhood, and not having to “settle” in your choice of a partner due to biological clock worries.

    • “career” women can afford childcare, or have enough of a financial cushion to take off. hell,ots not like most people stay with one employer for years and years anyway. the people who are really stuck are lower class unskilled women.

    • It’s no doubt true that the people who my concern directly applies to are a small (and in some way a privleged) segment of society. But I mean it to illustrate a larger point which I think is more generally important. Technological innovations (like freezing eggs) create new opportunities. We tend to think about these things as giving us more options, as enhancing choice.

      But the reality is that we make choices within a complicated framework. So women make choices about when to have children within a framework of employment that is often not compatible with having children. That may mean that the choices presented are somewhat illusory–because you there are strong external reasons why you have to choose a particular path.

      The egg freezing thing is a concrete instance of this that perhaps makes the general point more clear. It would seem to enhance options–you can more securely wait and have children if you want to. But in the context of at least some employment, that possibility become refigured as something you ought to do if you’re committed to your career.

      My point is that there is less choice than there may at first appear to be–or less freedom of choice. What’s constraining here isn’t ART, by the way–it’s the way careers/work are structured in this country.

  3. the risks of conceiving in ones thirties are exxaggerated as well in my opinion.

    • I know for myself, I’m less concerned about the medical risks of a late 30s/early 40s pregnancy, and more concerned about how being older and having less energy might make it more exhausting to be pregnant, to be up all night with a newborn, and then chase after a toddler. Not saying these things are ever going to be “easy” but for some people I think being older can make them harder.

      • i dont see that as much of a concern.

        • Not saying it needs to be a concern to everyone, just that there are reasons why someone might feel having kids at a younger age is the best choice for *them*, besides the age of the eggs/sperm.

      • This is the sort of concern that might well lead one to have children on the earlier side, I think. Obviously it is a personal one–of more salience to some than to others.

        • I grew up in a different culture, where people just had kids whenever, women from 20 and less to 40 and more, having and raising babies, no big deal. My own family is an example- there are 19 years between my sister and myself. (and other siblings in between).
          This culture views pregnancy and childrearing as something almost deviant, dangerous, and needing to be micromanaged and addressed mathematically and statistically.

  4. I’m reminded of a friend who met her partner when they were both at Oxford. She got pregnant while they were undergrads and the pressure on her to abort was huge. Even if people weren’t direct about it they were astonished she wanted to go ahead and that her partner agreed.

    Subsequent fertility problems caused by an ectopic pregnancy meant that she didn’t carry her second and third children until well after ten years later. She’s still with her partner, finished her doctorate some time ago.

    I think there is probably no right time to have kids, there is only a time when you are financially and emotionally prepared for the sacrifices and compromises you’ll have to make.

    • I’m sure this is true–the part about no right time, I mean. And I think what the story about your friends shows is that free choices (to carry to term or not) are not entirely free. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a consequence of living in a complicated social structure. I just thought the egg freezing development offered a moment to think about what it is that shapes our choices. And in this particular case, I think the inflexiblity of work is not a good thing.

      • It is ridiculous, isn’t it, that we are putting our bodies through all this expensive trauma to compromise with work, study, what our friends and family think, when Mr Wonderful turns up, when it might be easier to solve some of these problems via social change.

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