A scientist cryopreserving ovarian tissue strips (Photo via)
Yesterday, tech monoliths Apple and Facebook announced that they’ll now pay for female employees who want to have their eggs frozen. It’s a big move, even for Silicon Valley, where companies already boast such perks as on-site GP services, barber shops and, in Facebook's case, a dedicated culinary team (not to mention that mixed martial arts cage-fighting ring).
The message is: freeze your eggs, ladies, and free your career! It’s a win-win, right? Possibly. But it’s also problematic.
Overlooking the obvious (having babies and good careers should not be mutually exclusive), the move runs the risk of compounding fears of elitism surrounding fertility, i.e. if you don’t have thousands saved, or don’t work for a giant corporation and yet still want to be ambitious in your field, you might end up childless.
The reality for the everywoman is that egg freezing can be prohibitively expensive. It costs around $10,000 (£6,300) in the US. In the UK, CARE – the dominant force in private fertility treatment centres – charge £3,050 for egg collection, freezing, storage for three years and thawing. If you are having NHS fertility treatment – IUS, IVF, etc. – then, depending on your treatment cycle allowance, egg freezing is part of the process. If your treatment is unsuccessful and you breach your allocated cycles, you have to pay.
A recent Guardian article reported on how more and more women are delaying having a family, either because they’ve not met the right person, or because of their career. For most women, 35 is an albatross, as that's when our fertility starts to sharply decline. Women in their late-thirties and early-forties attempting IVF are often unsuccessful.
Experts now say, though, that medical advancements that have allowed women with cancer to store eggs (and ovarian tissue) before chemotherapy should be made widely available to healthy women. It wouldn't only temper future distress, but also reduce the costs of IVF, say experts writing in the Lancet medical journal’s new fertility series. “Both egg and ovarian tissue cryopreservation might be ready for application to the preservation of fertility not only in patients with cancer but also in countering the increasing incidence of age-related decline in female fertility,” argues Professor Dominic Stoop.
The age-related decline thing hums like a generator. Because while Silicon Valley’s move should be applauded for providing options for women in a world that still needs some pretty huge mountains toppled – and while it may not be about bringing a sea change to the system – it also has more than a faint whiff of serving to enforce an obsessive work mentality, of another layer of pressure. If I was working at Apple (which is never going to happen – I can barely navigate my iPhone settings), I would find it hard not to feel pressure to freeze my eggs, at 30, rather than just deciding, when the time was right, to remove myself from the workplace for a bit to be someone’s mum.
While ostensibly creating choice, Silicon Valley’s move also, arguably (as this piece suggests), removes it – continuing to hustle womb-bearers into working to an age where it becomes much harder to have kids. "Do it later on, when you’ve earned it," it seems to be saying, "but also when the success rate of IVF significantly drops."
The more cynical among us might see egg freezing as a grim solution for the woman that can never win. The arguments are strong. Author Kate Loss wrote that Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy – that women should demonstrate their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs – speaks of pregnancy being “converted into a corporate opportunity: a moment to convince a woman to commit further to her job. Human life as a competitor to work is the threat here, and it must be captured for corporate use, much in the way that Facebook treats users’ personal activities as a series of opportunities to fill out the Facebook-owned social graph.”
IVF lab equipment (Photo via)
It’s worth pointing out that harvesting and freezing your eggs isn’t a walk in the park, either. No part of having a baby is – regardless of how it happens. But according to people I know who've done it, the egg harvesting process can be physically and emotionally taxing. It’s not a quick thing like a dental check-up; they put you to sleep and you can be uncomfortable, and bleeding, for a while afterwards. Not to mention the hormonal warfare brought about by the ovarian hyper-stimulation injections beforehand. I recently found out that I only have IVF as an option for having babies, due to problems with scar tissue following bowel surgeries, and it’s not a process I’m looking forward to. Still, it’s a process I’d feel obliged to consider if I were a Silicon Valley employee.
Paradoxically, though, it also makes me, as a woman with only a handful of years bridging the path to 35, wish I were a Silicon Valley employee, and that’s wrong. Not because it’s wrong to aspire to work for a company like Apple, but because, if egg-freezing is already being used by some healthy women as security against fertility problems later on, and is a viable option, it should be available to us all. If I'm unsuccessful in my allocated three cycles of IVF at some point in the next few years, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to afford the £3,000+ price tag that will become my only option.
The Lancet authors believe that widespread egg-freezing has “a clear future”, but the likelihood of any kind of affordable, easily-accessible programme that doesn’t just cater for the well-off is probably far away. As Polly Toynbee says, our NHS is “in intensive care”. My generation, and the one after, probably can’t hope for egg freezing to be offered to them as a default, for free, in their fertile years – although that’s the dream.
A sperm cell being injected into an egg cell (Photo via)
Egg freezing is a wonderful option to have, if it’s available to you. Many women my age don’t even know it is, though – or at least how to go about it. I did a quick survey of my female friends and few of them knew that you were able, at a handsome cost, to do it quite so readily. (Self-funded egg freezing – that without a GP referral for proven need of fertility treatment – at Kings College Hospital costs £2,500, then an additional £250 annual storage past 24 months.) So it’s a shame we’re all learning about the ins and outs of it via Silicon Valley and the subsequent media whirlwind. It only makes the option seem more unattainable.
The bottom line here is that women reserve the right to have, or try to have, children whenever they want and feel it’s right to. If that happens to be in their mid or late-thirties, so what? Our wombs, our business. But, as The Lancet paper says, and as we all know, “...postponement of the first pregnancy has an effect on the risk of permanent biological childlessness”.
Many of us are willing to take the risk – I have friends in their mid-thirties who are happily breastfeeding their new babies. But no one should be in that position of risk-taking unless it’s out of choice. Not every woman aged 30+ is in a loving, healthy relationship, but lots of women 30+ want to have kids at some point and aren’t just looking for, but relying on, options like egg freezing. Neither money nor the stature of the company we work for should be a determining factor in this.
If widespread egg freezing for healthy women is a clear possibility, like The Lancet says, maybe other big companies will take note and start offering it to their employees, and more of us can consider it as a possibility. But for now, sadly, however progressive the Silicon Valley move may seem, it’s further reminder of how tricky it is for the rest of us.
More on VICE: