While sperm has been successfully frozen for decades, it wasn’t until 1999, when flash-freezing procedures were introduced, that eggs could also be stored in cryobanks. By 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine had announced that the freezing of a woman’s own eggs for possible use later in life—otherwise known as “social freezing”—would no longer be considered experimental.
The Society’s approval was meant to apply to infertile mothers who could not produce their own healthy ova—not career women deferring their childrearing years. This point was clarified by Eric Widra, a physician and co-chair of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine committee that made the recommendation, in a 2012 PBS interview: “We think it’s premature to recommend that women freeze their eggs to preserve their own fertility for later. But we recognize that there is a strong impetus to do so and if centers proceed with that service that we carefully counsel the patients as to the pros and cons. So we would love to say, yes, please go and do this. But it comes with both personal and societal and scientific ramifications that we aren’t prepared to say we understand yet.”
Nevertheless, fertility clinics across the United States quickly embraced the removal of the “experimental” designation to suggest that egg freezing was now safe for mothers wishing to save their own eggs for later in life. High-profile companies like Facebook announced that they would support egg freezing for their female personnel in order to retain valued employees. It is not uncommon for women in their mid-thirties and beyond to abandon their careers to have a family. In addition, having younger women save their eggs may prevent extensive costs associated with fertility treatment later in their lives and careers.
In April 2015, the heads of Facebook and Virgin Airlines, Sheryl Sandberg and Richard Branson, appeared on national television to defend Facebook’s $20,000 egg-freezing benefit for women employees.
Branson quipped: “How can anybody criticize [Facebook] . . . for doing that? . . . It’s the woman’s choice. If they want to carry on working, they can carry on working. If they haven’t managed to find the man of their dreams by 35–36–37–38, freeze the eggs—it makes sense the earlier you can freeze them the better . . . We at Virgin want to steal the idea and give it to our women.”
Enter the Egg Whisperer
In San Francisco, the “egg whisperer,” fertility doctor Aimee Eyvazzadeh, threw several egg-freezing parties for employees of major tech companies. The women were invited to enjoy free drinks and appetizers at a trendy San Francisco restaurant where they could listen to a presentation about the benefits of freezing their eggs. Fertility experts were on hand to field their questions. In Manhattan, Eggbankxx, a New York-based fertility clinic, hosted a similar event for professional women called “The Three F’s: Fun, Fertility and Freezing.” Wine and appetizers preceded a presentation similar to the one in San Francisco. The women who attended were emailed aggressively afterward with offers of special financial plans and large discounts for signing up.
“Have you thought about freezing your eggs?” co-author Mary Ann asked two young women at a San Francisco lunch for professional women. “Do you mean for sale?” one woman responded. “I probably wouldn’t do it—unless I was really desperate for money. But I would consider donating them to a close friend or family member . . . No, I take that back: I could not bear to see a baby who was mine and didn’t know it. And you have to take all those drugs. But I have seriously considered freezing them for later. First I need to make partner in my law firm. And by then, I figure I will be at least 37.”
The second woman offered: “I have been thinking about it as a career option for me, but I am only 28—I have a couple of years to decide. And then I worry that if I did do it, and waited until my forties, I would not be a good mother—I’d be too tired.”
Social freezing has now become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the fertility industry. Frozen eggs give hope to the swelling ranks of professional women who do not have time to have a baby. When a woman joins a firm after earning her M.B.A. or J.D., she has to show that she has “the right stuff,” which often means grueling sixty-hour workweeks and frequent travel. The traditional child-bearing years (the late twenties and early thirties) clash with the major career-building years. Men do not share this “baby penalty” at work. For professional women, the more hours they work, the fewer children they are likely to have, according to the 2000 census. The opposite is true for professional men: the more hours that they work—up to fifty-nine hours a week—the more children they are likely to have.
Marcia C. Inhorn, a professor at Yale University who researches fertility issues, asks if women like herself will now feel forced by their demanding livelihoods to seek egg freezing:
Employers may come to expect women to postpone childbearing through egg freezing. Women may be pushed into a burdensome and costly medical procedure that cannot provide guaranteed future fertility outcomes. Also, an increased age difference between mothers and their children may lead to poorer, less energetic parenting, as well as an increased likelihood that children will lose their mothers early on. Moreover, promoting egg freezing as a quick-fix technological solution does not solve the unfavorable employment policies that cause women to lean out of their careers . . . My female graduate students often ask me for advice on how to become a successful professor, while also having kids. I usually tell them to look for a supportive partner who has a nontraditional, flexible career path.
When my co-author Mary Ann became the first woman graduate dean at U.C. Berkeley in 2000, she was thrilled to see that the number of women entering the Ph.D. and professional school graduate programs slightly outnumbered the men. Did this mean that the hard-fought feminist revolution of the 1970s had finally been won? Hardly. Looking around the conference table of deans, Mary Ann found that she was the only woman. The scanty percentage of current female faculty was nowhere close to the number of women, coming up the graduate school pipeline. A similar story could be told, of any corporate or governmental career ladder across the nation. Women enter at levels not known before, and they achieve a certain, degree of success . . . but they rarely rise to the top.
The Do Babies Matter? project, Mary Ann’s ten-year-long research effort at Berkeley, examined the effect of childbirth on several professions: academia (with an emphasis on science), law, medicine, and business. While women have flocked to these professions in unprecedented numbers over the past thirty years—often surpassing men in the number of professional degrees earned—they have also dropped out, or dropped down into the second-tier of their professions, in massive numbers. Given the pressures of career and family life for these professional women, freezing eggs can seem an attractive option.
In academic science, a career path that the federal government has strongly promoted for women by channeling significant federal funds their way, the gender gap remains a major problem.
Often, women who originally hoped to make the long trek to become a research professor (which can take ten years with Ph.D. and postdoc requirements) abandon this goal before they look for their first tenure-track job. Childbirth is the main factor driving this attrition.
According to a National Science Foundation survey of all scientists, women with a partner and child are 35 percent less likely to seek a tenure-track job than a man with a partner and child. Single women, on the other hand, do just about as well as single men in obtaining that first job. The mothers who do begin a tenure-track position suffer again at the time of their tenure decision. They are 27 percent less likely than fathers to capture the golden ring of tenure. The average woman scientist is about thirty-five when obtaining her first tenure job, and forty when attaining tenure. They do not have the luxury of waiting until they have reached that long-sought-after job security to have a baby.
The attention given to egg freezing may be diverting employers from making changes that would keep talented, educated women in the pipeline.
Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn. Today, there are more family-friendly structural changes being implemented in the workplace:
• At U.C. Berkeley, new faculty mothers were offered two teaching-free semesters (new fathers were offered one semester). Recruitment has been greatly invigorated, and twice as many children have been born to assistant professor mothers.
• The California legislature used Mary Ann’s Do Babies Matter? Research to show that the greatest leak in the pipeline for women scientists occurs in the graduate school and postdoc years, when women are most likely to have babies. California passed a law mandating a strong leave policy with a right-to-return for both mothers and fathers who had babies during their graduate school years. This law applies to all institutions of higher education in California.
• Netflix led the corporate charge to reform the structure of the workplace by offering both mothers and fathers up to a year of paid leave after childbirth. As Netflix’s chief talent officer Tani Cranz, explained: “We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances. Parents can return part-time, fulltime, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay. Each employee gets to figure out what’s best for them and their family, and then works with their managers for coverage during their absences.”
Family Friendly Policies: Good for Business
Changing the structure of the workplace to allow mothers and fathers to continue their careers while taking time out for childbirth and family needs may seem more expensive for the industry. Yet in the long run, it has proved to be a good strategy for recruiting and retaining valuable academics. For instance, the federal government spends several hundreds of thousands of dollars investing in a single science student through graduate school and the postdoctoral years. That is all lost if a woman scientist drops out of the pipeline.
A family-friendly workplace allows sufficient time off for childbirth and baby-bonding, flexibility regarding business travel, and other support. To be successful, it must include fathers. Unfortunately, all of the attention given to egg freezing may be diverting employers from making critical structural changes that would keep talented and highly educated women in the pipeline.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine announcement was not supposed to be an endorsement for social freezing, but women of means are increasingly embracing the freezing option as part of their family planning. Fertility clinics report a huge upsurge in demand for egg freezing driven by the new market for social freezing.
Children born of frozen eggs face more possible health complications than children of sperm donors. The eggs will have been extracted through a medical procedure and frozen in a commercial egg bank for an indefinite period of time. Each of these steps introduces possible health consequences. Most important, the combination of the fertility drugs used to boost egg production and the insertion of multiple embryos into the womb (primarily in the United States, where this practice is still allowed despite having been banned in Europe) results in a high number of double, triple, and even quadruple births.
Multiple births are vulnerable to cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, blindness, developmental delays, mental retardation, and infant death—largely because they are often born prematurely with very low birth weights. Infant mortality rates for twins are four to five times that of single births, and for triplets the rate is higher still.
The widespread use of frozen eggs for in vitro fertilization is too recent a phenomenon for any research on the effects on children’s health. Certainly, there is evidence that children born preterm may have lifelong health effects. Until recently, egg freezing was only recommended for cancer patients facing potentially sterilizing chemotherapy, as the process involved low success rates and high cost. There is still some concern about the viability of freezing and the possible health effects for the child.
Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, comments:
Our concern is that a lot of fertility clinics, hundreds really, are already aggressively marketing this procedure for elective purposes . . . But I don’t think any woman wants to experiment with her own health or experiment with her children’s health . . . we don’t have adequate data about either the short-term risks or the long-term risks of egg extraction. . . I really hope that the fertility industry will . . . step up to the plate and really make it clear that they’re not recommending this at the current time for elective purposes, and that they hold the toes to the fire of their members who are advertising it that way and marketing it that way.
Women’s advocates who have been working for decades to institute family-friendly policies in the workplace are concerned that egg freezing may be a hollow victory for working mothers—a diversion from the more important discussion that needs to take place.
Darnovsky says: “We shouldn’t be asking women to bear these risks just so they can have a family. We should be putting in place policies that make sure women have equal pay for the work that they do, to make sure that they don’t hit glass ceilings, that there are family- friendly policies in workplaces, and that we’re not assuming that women are the sole or the major caretakers for children.”
This article is an excerpt from Babies of Technology: Assisted Reproduction and the Rights of the Child by Mary Ann Mason and Tom Ekman, new from Yale University Press. Published by permission.