Both the perk and the process can deceive and exploit those it intends to help.
It’s not very romantic, but the idea of egg freezing – preserving one’s eggs for later reproductive use – has a sort of practical appeal. Take my case. My husband and I met when I was 29 years old and, when we married three years later, we spent the better part of my 30s struggling with infertility. So, when the concept surfaces in the news, as it did recently with reports that Facebook and Apple will offer a benefit to cover the costs of their employees’ non-medical egg cryopreservation, I wondered whether I would have been better off had I been able to put away some nice, young eggs to be at my disposal when I finally met my Prince Charming. Sort of like a biological savings account – hoping that in my days of declining fertility, I could rest on the little “nest of eggs” I prudently had saved for myself.
While lauded in some corners as a welcome employment benefit from enlightened employers, paradoxically it perpetuates a bias against women in the workplace. In order to be taken seriously and be competitive professionally, so goes the argument, women must be treated equally to men. This seems obvious, except that equality is interpreted to mean that women should be the same as men – unfettered by the burden of biology. Egg freezing seeks to accomplish this “equality” by allowing the woman to focus on career during her peak fertile years and holding out the promise that her fertility will be available to her when she has achieved professional success and is ready to start a family. Far from promoting authentic equality for women, this view promotes a male-centric view of women that fails to respect their unique gifts and dignity. In the employment context, it means that women who are or desire to be mothers will always be at a disadvantage to men. Erika Bachiochi, author of “Embodied Equality: Debunking Equal Protection Arguments for Abortion Rights,” puts it this way:
Rather than focusing on sensible, responsive solutions, such as paid maternity leave, adequate leave time, affordable, quality childcare and flexible employment arrangements, employers who offer benefits such as egg freezing increase the pressure that some women might feel to postpone childbearing to focus on a career. According to New York Times article, “the tech companies emphasized that egg preservation was one of many family-friendly benefits they offered employees.” But, employment benefits can constitute incentives or rewards for certain behaviors, and one message covering egg freezing costs for young women sends is this: if you want to be successful in the workplace, postpone having children.
There are other arguments against the practice of egg freezing – not the least of which is that it doesn’t usually result in babies. The procedure is touted as the future of prolonged fertility for women and yet making babies with frozen eggs has a low success rate (success of implantation is less than 10% when collected under from a woman under 30 and around 4% when collected from a woman over 40). Of course, in order to attempt to conceive and bear children through the use of frozen eggs, it is likely that IVF will be required. This raises all of its serious attendant medical and moral concerns. Jennifer Lahl, of The Center for Bioethics and Culture, has made an extensive case against the practice of egg freezing, arguing that it is prohibitively expensive and that it involves numerous serious health risks, and has convincingly portrayed the devastating exploitation of women for their eggs in the film, “
There are serious moral implications as well. In Dignitas Personae, for example, an instruction drafted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope Benedict XVI, focused on the intention with which the eggs are frozen and clearly stated that “cryopreservation of oocytes for the purpose of being used in artificial procreation is to be considered morally unacceptable.”
These are all compelling reasons to avoid egg freezing. And happily, there are plenty of reasons to believe that marriage and babies are not incompatible with a rewarding career. To the extent this ideal isn’t realized, let us not be satisfied with employers who pay women to forgo their natural fertility. Rather, let us encourage employers to offer genuine responses to the question of how to balance women’s professional aspirations and family concerns. Women deserve better than placing their reproductive capacities into suspended animation to benefit their employers.
But, what about advocating for its use for those women who – like me – had no deliberate intention to postpone childbearing or who did not prefer a career at the expense of building a family. I simply missed the boat on my (presumably) optimal fertile years because I hadn’t met my husband yet. Shouldn’t women like me be encouraged to set aside some healthy eggs for future use, in the same way that we are encouraged to begin building our retirement accounts? This is a welcome trend, according to Sarah Elizabeth Richards, author of "Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It," who suggests that younger women are more open to egg freezing because they do not see it as “a sad desperate act or punishment for not steering their love lives better. It’s a tool to plan their futures.”
Therein lies at least part of the problem I have with egg freezing: our society’s intense pressure to control and plan and perfect our futures makes us treat fertility as a tool. But, our bodies are not mere material assets, and freezing eggs is qualitatively different from prudently stewarding one’s resources to prepare for future retirement or crises. Think of the parable of the talents: egg freezing is akin to hoarding and burying our reproductive capacities in the hopes that we can dig them up intact in the future. We experience failed relationships in the present, we worry whether we will ever meet a suitable partner, and we fear that if we do meet him we will have missed our reproductive window. Therefore, my “perfect” future necessitates that I save my young eggs. But, the lesson of the parable is that this is not the way to plan for the future for it arises from fear, not love.
Fear and worry make us hunker down and try to preserve what we have. In contrast, love is selfless. It takes risks. It is sacrificial. It bears fruit. In the context of waiting for the right partner – and yet wanting to preserve your fertility – what does this mean? It means that you live without fear and anxiety in the present moment, using your gifts and talents fully. If you do meet the right person, you will give your whole self to him as a gift – for better or for worse. Your gift of yourself includes your body – in sickness and in health. This may, or may not, include impaired fertility. Regardless, a marriage built on love will bear fruit.
This view of the future is not despairing or fearful. It is hopeful – and open to the myriad ways in which marriages bear fruit. As Pope Francis has told young people,
In contrast, the proponents of egg freezing tell young women to despair. Don’t allow them to foist on you the belief that your older self will not be good enough for your future spouse. Don’t let them force you to think of your body as a 401(k) plan … as just an investment vehicle … a mere object for hoarding, preserving, and eventually consuming.
Elizabeth Kirk, J.D.,
is a Resident Fellow
in Cultural & Legal Studies
at the Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University and former Associate Director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture. She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband and three children.