A scientist cryopreserving ovarian tissue strips. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
This week, tech giants 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 medical care, barber shops and, in Facebook's case, a dedicated "culinary team."
The message is: Freeze your eggs, ladies, and don't worry about working around the clock through your fertile years! 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 seems to confirm many fears clustered around class difference and 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 in the US. In the UK, CARE—the dominant force in private fertility treatment centers—charge £3,050 ($4,880) for egg collection, freezing, storage for three years, and thawing. (It's also covered under the National Health Service up to a point.)
A recent Guardian article reported on how more and more women are delaying having a family, either because they haven't met the right person or because they're too busy with their careers. For most women, the approaching age of 35 is an albatross, as that's when our fertility starts to sharply decline. Women in their late 30s and early 40s attempting in vitro fertilization (IVF) are often unsuccessful.
Experts now say, though, that medical advancements that have allowed women with cancer to store eggs (and ovarian tissue) prior to chemotherapy should be made widely available to healthy women. It wouldn't only temper future distress, but also reduce the costs of IVF, say doctors writing in the Lancet medical journal.
“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 the Lancet paper, which Professor Dominic Stoop was the lead author of.
While the idea of free egg freezing for tech employees should be applauded—after all, it provides choices to women in a world that often doesn't give them enough—it also has more than a faint whiff of serving to enforce an obsessive work mentality, of stacking another layer of pressure onto people living in a workaholic system. If I was an Apple employee (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 mom.
Arguably, the offer of egg freezing actually narrows women's options, nudging them into working to an age where it becomes much harder to have kids. "Do it later on, when you’ve earned it," Facebook and Apple seem 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 who can never win. The arguments are strong. Author Kate Losse wrote that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s now-famous “Lean In” philosophy—in essence, 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 Wikimedia Commons
It’s worth pointing out that harvesting and freezing your eggs isn’t a walk in the park, even if you aren't paying for it. (Really, no part of bearing and caring for another human is.) 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 IVF is my only option if I want to have 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 left until 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 in anticipation of fertility problems later on, it should be available to us all. If I'm unsuccessful in my NHS-allocated allocated three cycles of IVF at some point in the next few years, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to afford the 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 program that doesn’t only cater for the well-off is probably far away. As the Guardian's Polly Toynbee says, the 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 Wikimedia Commons
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. 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 30s, 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 30s who are happily breastfeeding their new babies. But no one should be in that position of taking on that risk unless it’s out of choice. Not every woman over 30 is in a loving, healthy relationship, but lots of women over 30 want to have kids at some point and aren’t just looking for, but relying on, options like freezing their egg. 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 possibility, 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.
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