Freezing Eggs and the Perils of Choice

I have a number of comments in moderation at the moment, but before sifting through them I wanted to comment on this story.   I’m sure many of you have already seen it and there has been lots of interesting commentary, too.

It seems that some tech companies–Apple and Facebook–are now offering to pay to have female employees freeze their eggs.    This is as part of an array of fertility related health benefits.   I’ve written about egg freezing in the past.    This is a relatively new technology and we really haven’t seen how it will play out yet.  But I remain somewhat skeptical about the offer made by these “generous” employers.   (We should all bear in mind that what motivates them is not generosity but rather the desire to maintain a competitive edge.  Apparently other industries–like big law firms–may be following right behind in providing this benefit.)

The problem being solved here  is that it seems fairly clear that “young ” eggs (say those that are 20-30 years old) are most likely to produce healthy babies.     If a career-minded woman waits until she is well established at work, she may well be in the “old egg” part of the spectrum.   This is one aspect of the ticking biological clock.   So, before egg freezing, she had to choose–career or children?

Freezing eggs lets her have it all.   She can preserve her 25 year old eggs, lean in at work, and then, in her thirties, thaw those eggs and they are still young.   How can we not applaud giving women this kind of control over their fertility?   At least some of the employers are apparently also expanding maternity leave (or perhaps parental leave?) and this would strengthen the sense that what’s happening here is that women’s choices are being expanded.   Surely a good thing?

And yet…..As a number of commentators have pointed out, providing a low-risk option for deferred child-rearing could well create pressure on young women to resolve the work/family balance issue in a particular way–work first.   And of course, this resolution would make employers happy, I should think.   Women could still choose to have children in their twenties (and avail themselves of the enhanced maternity benefits) but this would now be understood as a choice–one that reflected the higher priority the woman placed on child-rearing.   Would this really be irrelevant to her assessment as an employee?

Curiously, the women who cannot freeze her eggs might more easily assert that her decision to have children while she is young does not reflect the priority she places on work.   The woman with more options might be held more accountable for the choices she makes.

There’s another way of looking at it, too.   Many feminists would argue that reforming work places (and work itself) to better accommodate the needs of those with caretaking responsibilities should be a top priority.     Since caretaking so often falls to women, it is only the reform of work that can lead to the full participation of women.    The US has made precious little progress on this front.

Facilitating egg freezing masks the need for this kind of reform.   And, of course, this is really only an option for a tiny percentage of working women.   Most women’s employers will not provide this benefit and it is an expensive proposition, far beyond the reach of many working women.   So even if it is a positive developments for some women, it is a hindrance to change that would benefit many, many more.

And so I  am skeptical of the claim that this is progress.   And yet, can giving women more choice, more control, really be a bad thing?   Many years ago some feminists opposed access to birth control.   They reasoned that only the specter of unwanted children allowed women to effectively resist the unwanted sexual advances of their husbands.   Thus, it seemed to them, giving women access to birth control–to choice, to control–would actually diminish their ability to exercise choice bout sex.

I think this argument seems absurd and utterly misguided today.   But isn’t there an echo of it in my expression of misgivings about offering women the choice to freeze their eggs?     Or maybe I’m just hearing things.

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8 responses to “Freezing Eggs and the Perils of Choice

  1. I agree 100% with your thought process, especially since freezing eggs is no guarantee that they will result in a baby at the later, “optimal” time. These young women might freeze their eggs to focus on their careers and find that the eggs don’t lead to pregnancy after all. It’s not a true choice and not empowering.

  2. I see both positives and negatives. Egg freezing at least gives some hope to women who would lose their fertility from things like cancer treatments – previously, they had to use donor sperm if single (since only fertilized eggs could be frozen with any reasonable chance at success), and if they were in a relationship and they used their husband or partner’s sperm, had to hope the relationship would not break down as they could then lose the embryos. And also for women who are delaying having kids because they are still hoping to find the right relationship and would prefer not to have a child alone. But the downside is women in certain career fields will be heavily pressured to delay kids even if they’d prefer to have children at a younger age. So I see both good sides and bad sides to this technology.

  3. I think I generally agree with you Julie. I’d add my usual dark cloud of skepticism over the notion that someone should trust a corporation to safeguard their sex cells until they are ready to retrieve them is naive when we consider just how much the egg of a young attractive fertile ivy league lawyer might fetch if marketed as the frozen egg of a willing, but anonymous donor. Women have to give complete trust in the word of the physician on the matter of how many eggs were really retrieved, they could say they retrieved 10 when they really received 20. The storage facility could claim that some of the eggs became damaged and unusable and how could she confirm that statement? There is certainly a financial motive to make lots of money off cells that are not paid for. Why pay women for eggs to resell when you can get them for free from fertile women looking to store them for later and sell those for 100% profit without anyone being any the wiser because anonymity is a typical component in the market for human gametes. There is also no guarantee that the eggs a woman checks out will be the same one’s she deposited. There is much room for plain old non malicious human error since all eggs look alike even under a microscope.

    If you think how wary people were to deposit money into banks after the stock market crash they eventually became more confident in the idea that the bank could utilize the specific money deposited so long as if you go to withdraw they give you a different stack of cash but of equal value. Not the same exact stack of cash but a stack of cash that will function for its intended purpose as legal tender. Well our genes are a little bit different – a different set of genes will result in a different person’s child and that is really not what they are signing up for.

    For a cancer patient looking at immediate infertility I can see where the risk/reward might still be worth taking the chance. But to be foolish enough to have that blind trust as a matter of standard course seems foolish.

    • While there may be some agreement here, I suspect we also disagree. I think there are responsible and careful providers who can freeze eggs and track them. I’m sure there are also sketchy operators, but I don’t think they are the rule. Perhaps I am just trusting where you are skeptical.

  4. Its unacceptable for an employer to have any involvement in employees health care decisions in my opinion. All health care should be carried out via outside insurance companies. and if they choose a ritzy company that provides fertility services egg freezing im sure is only one on the list not the whole focus, which in my opinion makes a big difference.

    • While I see your point, I think it is common for employers to purchase particular benefit packages for their employees. I could be wrong about that, but as it is a benefit of employment, I think the company decides the scope of the benefit. In this case they do provide a range of fertility services, as I understand it.

  5. I think people need to do their own research and decide for them what’s more important. If their careers and more important than starting a family and they decide to freeze their eggs then they need to accept the risk they are taking. Egg freezing may give them a better chance than if they had decided not to but it’s not a guarantee.

    People need to understand that if they decide to have children at a younger age they are putting aside aspirations of climbing the corporate ladder. People can’t have it all. Life is about making decisions and sacrifices for things they want. Being a working parent means your avaliable time to dedicate to work is going to be less.

    The same goes for men who if they are stay at home dads or work less to spend more time at home. They are passing up on advancing their career. As long as people understand the risks and things they will give up with the decisions they make they should be supported. But no one is entitled to have everything.

    If you are talking about freezing eggs due to a cancer or some other type of disease that is a different story. But again there is no guarantee in that situation either that or will work out.

    • very reasonably put. The best anyone can do is educate themselves on the risks and benefits before investing emotion or finances into a major decision.

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