SiliconValley
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Culture
Politics

The valley of the frozen eggs

In 2012 the American Society for Reproductive Medicine removed the label ‘experimental’ from oocyte cryopreservation, otherwise known as egg freezing. The term ‘experimental’ which, in other circles – such as writing – opens up possibilities, has the opposite effect in the health world, for no-one wants their medical procedures to be untried. We want our operations within normal, non-threatening boundaries. Thus, removing the term ‘experimental’ shuts down fear and seemingly turns the procedure into a normal or standard action.

The result has been the rise of interest in what has become known as egg freezing for ‘social reasons’. Egg freezing parties where women get information about the process, accompanied by a canapé and a glass of champers, have been held in New York. While fertility preservation has been available to women (and men) about to undergo various cancer treatments – treatments which can result in patient sterility – but freezing your eggs because you haven’t found the right partner or the timing is not right due to work restraints ushers in a new stage in the ongoing public enactment of female reproduction rights in the twenty-first century.

To further push the issue into the public sphere, Apple then announced that in 2015 it would begin to provide health benefits to female employees who wanted to undergo egg harvesting procedures and freeze their eggs, covering up to $US20,000 (one cycle of the procedure costs around $US10,000 and the storage of eggs around $US500 a year). Facebook, of course, has already been doing this since the beginning of 2014.

The future, then, is now. A stable of educated, wealthy women have been given the capacity to beat biology, drawing on the medical profession’s constant warnings about women’s fertility rates dropping dramatically after the age of 35.

The viability of one’s eggs is a key factor for many fertility issues so it does seem to make sense to hold onto younger eggs. But oocyte cryopreservation is a phenomenon which also encourages women to see procreation as something that can be put off until ideal circumstances arise, offering a so-called ‘insurance’ policy which they might not be able to cash in on. As Todd Wasserman wrote on Mashable:

In an extreme case, a woman might put off having a family when she’s biologically able to and then find that IVF with frozen eggs didn’t work. In that case, she’s forfeited the chance to have biological children. If free egg freezing wasn’t available via her employer, she might not have taken the risk.

Furthermore, as Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker:

The inclusion of egg freezing as an employee benefit partakes of the techno-utopian fantasy on which companies like Facebook and Apple subsist – the conviction that there must be a solution to every problem, an answer to every question, a response to every need, if only the right algorithm can be found.

While egg freezing sponsored by her employer may seem to free women from biological restraints, it continues to highlight women’s involvement in the workforce as inextricably linked to the decision to have children. That is, it plays into the Silicon Valley’s creation of a workplace that, while touting itself as family friendly – Facebook provides very generous parental leave – actually relies on employees who commit wholeheartedly to the company, even to the extent of putting off having a family in order to be available 24/7.

Those advocating egg freezing, such as Christy Jones, founder of Extend Fertility, claim that the choice to place one’s fertility ‘on ice’ is one of empowerment. Jones, without any sense of irony, declared that employers offering this benefit ‘can help women be more productive human beings’.

How can this do anything but reinforce the underlying belief that women who procreate and temporarily leave the economy are less productive human beings? That the act of raising children sits outside of the area of useful behaviour?

Back in 2004, treasurer Peter Costello infamously asked families to have ‘one for the mum, one for the dad and one for the nation’, in response to the ongoing decline in births in Australia. This downward population trend – mirrored in many developed countries – reflects the greater participation of women in the workforce and the concomitant tendency to, therefore, delay motherhood until late 20s or early 30s. The median age of first-time mothers in Australia in 2013 was 29.3 years.

Costello’s call for women to have three children was, in the main, ignored and since 1976, the average number of babies born to an Australian woman throughout her reproductive cycle has been insufficient to replace herself and her partner. In this country, one baby might be born every minute, but one person also dies every three minutes, meaning having two children does not result in your exact replacement. Most mothers are usually in their early to mid-30s when trying to conceive for the second time. The thought of a third baby does not, often, come into play.

While most people live under the illusion that the act of procreation is a personal decision – that the choice to have one, two or three children is dictated by internal forces – this can only hold true if you are able to sit outside of the economic conditions which encourage, or discourage, workplace participation. The increasing cost of adequate childcare, the rise of part-time, precarious contracts and the expectation of long hours in full-time work, all contribute to the difficulties of managing parenthood and satisfying employment, and continue to encourage women to delay, and possibly miss, the chance to have a family. Increasingly sophisticated reproduction technologies such as egg freezing, linked to employer health care, sends yet another message that raising children is incompatible with career success and it should be put off as long as possible.

Rather than encouraging women to put their fertility in the freezer, high-profile employers like Apple and Facebook should be finding ways to embrace child-rearing within their corporate culture and governments need to seek solutions beyond quick-fix Baby Bonuses or unsustainable parental leave. At the risk of sounding the cry of ‘won’t anyone think of the children?’ the act of child-raising needs to be placed firmly within the field of economic usefulness, and those who are reproductive seen as just as vital as those who are not.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rachel Hennessy’s novels are The Quakers (Wakefield Press, 2008) and The Heaven I Swallowed (Wakefield Press, 2013). She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

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Comments

  1. Even leaving aside all the issues of productivity, encouraging women to put off having their babies also doesn’t factor in the toll on your body, physically, when you’re an older pregnant person. Or how well you bounce back after the pregnancy.

    Even taking into account that I have more children now at age 38 than I did when I had one at the age of 31, my energy levels are still a lot lower now. That alone means my ability to work effectively and efficiently is reduced, unless that work is part time so that I can achieve some semblance of balance between the work that is raising my children and earning an income.

  2. Thought-provoking article, thanks!

    I am wondering in what way this exhortation could be satisfied:
    “employers like Apple and Facebook should be finding ways to embrace child-rearing within their corporate culture”

    Are the two not incompatible? So you’re left with maternity leave, part-time work or outsourcing childcare?

    Would love to hear some other ideas!

  3. Thanks Nat. I don’t think the two are incompatible if corporations have the will and mindset. A few examples: creches in workplaces, hours that co-incide with school hours, no expectation of unpaid overtime? I still don’t understand an economy which, on the one hand, relies so heavily on the expediture of families but, on the other, still treats the act of being in one as antipathetic to working.

  4. Thanks Rachel. Interesting article- I had never heard of this within workplaces. Agree- embracing child rearing within the workplace culture a much better approach then freezing eggs. This should place an equal emphasis on supporting the care role of BOTH parents so it can be better shared. My experience has been a smooth and welcoming transition back to part time work after my first child. After my second child my maternity leave position was dishonoured and I feel out in the wilderness about my career and taking the step back into work feels incredibly daunting. Maternity leave, when respected, is designed to overcome this. I feel a huge imbalance for myself as fulltime primary care and my partner consumed in fulltime work, we both love what we are doing and I savour my time with my young kids, but feel like we are missing out in different ways and at different times we both resent this and are sent a little nutty by it (particularly myself!)If it were financially viable, the ideal balance would be for us both to work part time. I know this would benefit the kids too.

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