Politics & Policy

No, Egg Freezing Won’t Let Women Have It All

Embryo samples in cryogenic storage. (Getty Images)
Why the next frontier of feminism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Last week, NBC News reported that Facebook and Apple are adding a rather pricey benefit to their health-care packages in order to attract and retain female employees: up to $20,000 in egg-freezing coverage, which can be used for non-medical reasons. Currently offered to Facebook employees as a surrogacy benefit and being rolled out as a fertility benefit for Apple employees starting in January, egg freezing may seem at first glance like just another line item on the list of perks employees of Silicon Valley enjoy.

But women who code should be warier of complimentary cryopreservation than they are of techtopia’s other famous perks: kitchens stocked with unlimited snacks, “baby cash” to help expectant parents prepare for little ones, and even some of the other fertility benefits that both companies offer employees. When it comes to egg freezing, Facebook and Apple employees, as well as women at large, would be wise to err on the side of caution.

Although some commentators are hailing egg freezing as the next frontier of feminism — a new kind of “birth control” that allows women to silence the ticking of their biological clocks while freeing them up to pursue their careers and retain their fertility — there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical.

First used in the 1980s to enable women with cancer to preserve healthy eggs before undergoing chemotherapy, in recent years egg freezing has become a back-up plan for some women who have delayed childbearing because they haven’t found the right partner. But freezing one’s eggs as a career move — a plan A, rather than a plan B — is a newer trend. Anne-Marie Slaughter alluded to it back in 2012 in her widely read Atlantic piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” writing that

The way our work culture is oriented today, I recommend establishing yourself in your career first but still trying to have kids before you are 35 — or else freeze your eggs, whether you are married or not. 

It’s a strategy that’s increasingly appealing to many women. In a 2013 Cosmopolitan survey, almost 50 percent of respondents said they’d consider freezing their eggs, and 62 percent said that career would be a factor in that decision (more specifically, “so a baby doesn’t derail my career in my 20s and 30s”). In August, the New York Post reported on an “egg-freezing party” sponsored by the company EggBanxx, which targeted professional women who want to take their fertility into their “own hands.”

The general idea is this: Focus on building your career now; focus on building your family later. You can have it all, and on your own terms, too. “We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families,” a statement from the company says. But, as Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle puts it

Is all this egg freezing actually going to expand the choices of most women who will use it, or will it just be an expensive way to choose career over family without realizing that you’re making that choice?

In other words, is this anything more than corporate America nudging women to choose in a certain way? Is this what “leaning in” looks like now?

Whatever the intentions of Facebook and Apple, women should know that egg-freezing is a relatively new technology and a risky one at that: The American Society of Reproductive Medicine only lifted its “experimental” designation for the procedure in 2012. Here’s how it works: A woman takes hormones to hyper-stimulate her ovaries, causing them to produce multiple eggs at a time, rather than the single egg normally released in a menstrual cycle. When the eggs are deemed ready (usually in about two weeks), the woman undergoes a surgical procedure in which the eggs are retrieved. The eggs are then frozen, using either the slow-freeze method or vitrification, and stored. It generally takes two rounds of treatment to gather the optimal number of eggs (about 20), and each round costs up to $10,000. Then, there’s the additional cost of storing the eggs (upwards of $500 per year) and the cost of in vitro fertilization treatments and embryo implantation when (or if) the time comes.

Freezing their eggs is prohibitively expensive for most women — which is why Facebook’s and Apple’s offering to cover it is no small thing — but even if it were free, it wouldn’t be a good deal for most women. The success rate for the procedure is very low: According to a 2013 report from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, cited by Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, when a woman freezes her eggs through vitrification at age 30, there’s only a 13.2 percent chance that an embryo will implant; when a woman freezes at 40, there’s only an 8.9 percent chance. There are also medical risks from the hormones used in the procedure, such as Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome and cancer, but those are risks that many women are comfortable taking. The more serious consideration is the effectiveness rate.

According to The Atlantic’s Megan Garber, the fact that Facebook and Apple are offering egg freezing as a benefit indicates that the procedure has reached a new kind of cultural normalcy. “These offerings are bureaucratic changes,” she writes, “that also show us where we are, and where we’re headed, together.”

If she’s right, we should consider if it’s where we want to be headed. Should our culture be encouraging women to delay motherhood in the service of career, or should it be focused on creating more family-friendly work policies instead?

Biology can’t always be beaten. Infertility can be heartbreaking for couples wanting to start families; to risk it to climb the corporate ladder seems foolish. Employees of Facebook and Apple should question if the benefits of their new benefit are worth the potential costs — physically, professionally, and emotionally. Life is full of trade-offs, and we’d be better off admitting that and giving up the illusion that women (or men for that matter) can “have it all,” that we can control every aspect of our bodies and our lives. Like many promises of feminism, I’m afraid that this one too may ring hollow: Motherhood deferred may lead many women straight for the devastation they think they’re protecting themselves from.

— Madison V. Peace is the former assistant to the editor at National Review. She works in non-profit development, freelance writes, and is an editor for In Earnest Mag.

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