Fans of egg freezing cheered the news this week that tech giants Apple and Facebook were offering up to $20,000 in benefits for female employees to preserve their fertility. The perk makes the expensive procedure, which has long been accessible to only the most affluent, more accessible to women.
Yet bioethicists and law experts question whether this is really an advance for women in the long run.
“It’s great for women to have choices,” says Diane Tober, assistant research professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California at San Francisco, who studies the cultural impact of reproductive technologies. “But the practice could be subtly coercive and end up limiting women’s choices by making them feel required to delay childbearing in order to keep their jobs or excel at their work.”
The news came as a shock to fertility doctors who have heard rumors that some law firms are quietly dangling egg freezing, which costs about $10,000 a cycle and is usually not covered by insurance, to new hires. These benefits were never publicly acknowledged, however, possibly to avoid the appearance of pressuring women to prioritize work during their prime childbearing years and freeze their eggs for later use.
The big question is whether Facebook
or any employer that makes egg freezing available as part of a package to lure top female talent is implying that women should in fact pursue this course.
“Technology in general has a perceived women problem. This might be part of a charm campaign to say we really are a good place for women,” says Glenn Cohen, faculty director at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics. “But Facebook should be careful it isn’t sending the message that women at 25 can’t get pregnant if they want to be successful there instead of creating a work environment where young mothers can also thrive.”
The bold move reflects the changing cultural image of egg freezing as something that desperate women in their late 30s and early 40s took advantage of to rescue their last bits of fertility to a tool women can use to proactively juggle work and family. “Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career,” blared a recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet despite its veneer of empowerment, egg freezing isn’t a procedure with a guaranteed result of producing a baby when a woman’s natural fertility is gone in her mid-forties.
“What if it doesn’t work? The technology doesn’t always live up,” says Naomi Cahn, law professor at George Washington University who writes about reproductive technology. “Egg freezing creates the opportunity to transcend the biological clock, but it also creates the illusion that we will always be able to transcend the biological clock.”
Even though the American Society for Reproductive Medicine removed the experimental label from the procedure in 2012, the doctors’ organization stopped short of recommending it to healthy women who want to postpone motherhood. Success rates of egg freezing at the top fertility clinics are approaching those of in-vitro fertilization using fresh eggs, but they still vary depending on the quality of a woman’s eggs that she freezes.
The good news is that $20,000 worth of egg freezing means a woman can stash away several dozen eggs and give herself several chances of one turning into a baby down the line. This is especially the case as prices have dropped in many markets, and several clinics are offering multi-cycle discounts.
More companies will surely Facebook and Apple’s lead. Still, as egg freezing is embraced by the mainstream, critics are worried about the worst-case scenario of the ambitious 30-year-old who stashes away her best eggs, gives her best baby-making years to a company, and then ends up empty-handed when she tries to become a mother at age 45. In the meantime, it’s not clear whether women will perceive the perk as corporate pressure, or support for the full spectrum of her reproductive needs.
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a New York-based journalist and author of “Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It” (Simon & Schuster).
View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/apple-and-facebook-back-fertility-but-women-could-pay-a-price-2014-10-16