I’ve been travelling a lot recently and in Anchorage (American Bar Association Family Law Section Meeting) I was on a panel with a doctor who does fertility work in southern California. He mentioned that it was now possible to give a gift certificate that allowed the recipient to have her own eggs frozen. It turns out to be a popular gift from parents to their daughters who are graduating from law school.
The idea here is that the eggs can be harvested when the daughter is young and in her (reproductive) prime and then they can be safely stored away until after she finds Mr. (or maybe Ms?) Right and/or gets her career up and running. It’s a way of stopping–at least for a while–the biological clock. Now, thanks to the wonders of technology and the generosity of her parents, the daughter has a choice. Freezing her eggs lets her have it all.
But I worry about how sometimes choices can be illusory and sometimes something that looks like giving people a choice can be a way of exercising control. Indeed, this has been preying on my mind.
There are probably young women (I’m thinking here of women in the early/mid 20s) who really know they want to do this and so for them maybe it really is a gift. But I think there must be plenty of women in that age group who aren’t so sure about this and what, then, does this gift mean? Is it just giving them one more option?
I see pressure running in two different directions. First off, suppose what they were thinking about is having a kid first and either integrating that with their career launch or delaying the career launch. Or even having a kid in the next five years. Without egg freezing that path could have been defended by invoking the biological clock. Having a kid didn’t mean that they choosing not to commit to their careers and picking motherhood instead–it was what you had to do because the clock was ticking.
But with the certificate in hand, what excuse do they have for choosing early motherhood except that they are choosing to put that ahead of their careers? It is, after all, a choice. They could easily freeze those eggs and wait ten or fifteen years. The choice to instead have the kid now means they’re not so serious about their careers. And if that’s the calculus and they really are serious about their careers then I think they are under much greater pressure to use the certificate and defer motherhood.
This brings me to a second dimension. Many women in their early 20s aren’t sure about parenthood yet. But once you’ve got that certificate, you need to act promptly. After all, the idea is to freeze your eggs when you are in your prime, not wait until you are 30 or 35. And since all the costs are covered and everything, you might as well just go right on ahead and have the eggs frozen, right?
And then what? Now you’ve got these frozen eggs and sooner or later you’re going to have to figure out what to do with them. Keep the stored? Use them? Give them away? Sell them? Donate them? Of course, you don’t need to decide this when you are 22 and getting your eggs frozen. But once you do get your eggs frozen you will need to decide. And I think for some people this is likely to be a very messy and difficult decision, whenever they get to it.
Ordinarily you avoid the whole thing simply by not getting the eggs frozen in the first place, but if you have this certificate, then doesn’t it seem the more prudent course to freeze now and figure it out later?
And of course the certificate didn’t come from just anyone. It came from your parents–so it’s also about their potential grandchildren. Surely the conversations between parent/adult child about producing grandchildren are complicated enough without adding this in? It really does seem to me like it could be an effort by parents to push their daughters towards child-bearing.
In general the advent of egg freezing makes me uneasy. It’s not because of the prospect that the egg market will come to resemble the sperm market. The big play these days really does seem to be aimed at women, encouraging them to freeze their own eggs for their own use. While this might seem much less problematic (no issues about genetic lineage, etc. if you use your own eggs), it actually worries me as much if not more. And the news coverage of this new technology and market seems to me woefully inadequate (as one of the comments on that story suggests.)