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.