The issue of social egg freezing has increasingly appeared in the news over the past decade as technological advances, celebrity endorsement and corporate cooperation make the procedure more widely known and available. In the UK, the issue has received particular attention as campaigners are gearing up in 2020 to challenge legislation that requires frozen eggs to be disposed of after a period of 10 years [Ref: Huffington Post]. But the debate has been taking place worldwide. For example, a city in Japan is now covering part of the cost of the treatment to combat their low birth-rate [Ref: BBC News] and a woman in China is suing her government for denying her the right to freeze her eggs because she is single [Ref: New York Times].
As usage of the treatment in the UK is rising rapidly, reportedly by as much as 11 per cent just between 2016 to 2017 [Ref: Dazed Beauty], discussion about the ethics of the procedure has hit headlines. Given the ‘biological clock’ and social pressures on women to conceive, many view the procedure as a scientific blessing for ambitious, career-minded women who wish to have children later in life. However, critics are less than convinced, with concerns such as affordability, efficacy and the morality of clinics promising motherhood when success rates are low [Ref: The Guardian].
Much of the discussion has been centred around Apple, Facebook and, more recently, Goldman Sachs [Ref: Evening Standard], who all have policies that offer to pay for female employees to freeze their eggs and store them for later use. Apple explained that its decision was aimed at empowering women to plan ahead: “We continue to expand our benefits for women…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.” [Ref: The Guardian] Many see this as simply a smoke-screen to encourage women to work for longer, with a fertility clinic manager arguing that “your company won’t care about you – it will care about the money you’re making” [Ref: Screen Shot].
Is social egg freezing offering more options for women, or should we be wary of employers’ intentions? Is it too expensive and inefficient to be considered a helpful tool for women, or does it empower women to ‘have it all’?
What is egg freezing … and does it work?
Egg freezing is a method used to preserve reproductive potential in women. It is done by harvesting eggs from a woman’s ovaries, freezing them unfertilised, and storing them for later use [Ref: Kinderwunschteam Berlin]. Until recent years, it was a procedure used primarily for women undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy for illnesses like cancer, the treatments for which can affect fertility. But the debate has now moved on to the more controversial topic of women with no medical issues opting to freeze their eggs as a fertility choice – in essence, attempting to put motherhood ‘on ice’ until they decide they are ready.
There are questions about the effectiveness of the procedure, with one opinion piece declaring: “The central fact about egg freezing is that it almost never leads to a successful birth.” [Ref: The Times]. Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) suggest “the current birth rate for women trying to conceive from their own eggs is just 18 per cent” [Ref: Guardian]. The low success rate, invasive nature of the procedure and high costs all led one commentator to conclude “It’s important that we don’t labour under the misapprehension that by freezing our eggs we are future-proofing our fertility, because … that’s just not true” [Ref: Grazia].
Proponents disagree and argue that as treatments improve, the success rate is improving dramatically. Some studies have shown “that pregnancy rates and health outcomes following egg freezing are now comparable to those with IVF with fresh eggs” [Ref: Huffington Post]. Furthermore, some suggest that freezing eggs earlier creates a far higher chance of success: “For young, fit women with no fertility issue, the success of egg freezing may ultimately be much greater.” [Ref: Cosmopolitan]
The development from medical to social egg freezing has been celebrated by many who champion women’s reproductive rights. While arguing against the 10-year limit on socially frozen eggs, Eleanor Morgan brings up fundamental issues of a women’s right to choose: “We can’t stop our biological clocks ticking, but god knows we deserve the option to take the reins if we choose to.” For her, social egg freezing is a fundamental issue of autonomy, regardless of other issues of success rates and “misguided faith” [Ref: The Guardian]. Similarly, many argue that the procedure allows women to have longer and more fulfilling careers, which is the basis of the Pentagon’s 2016 decision to trial a social egg-freezing scheme as they had found that “Women who reach 10 years of service… have a retention rate that is 30 per cent lower than their male counterparts.” [Ref: New York Times]
On the other hand, many suggest that egg freezing is just a technical fix for broader social and economic problems, such as the trouble people have in finding partners willing to commit to children, or an economy that makes it difficult to raise kids. Kylie Baldwin from the Centre for Reproduction Research at De Montfort University suggests that “the large number of single and unmarried adults creates less of a sense of urgency among men to pursue parenthood” [Ref: Daily Mail]. Similarly, as writer Molly Osberg points out, “a large portion of people who freeze their eggs do so because they are waiting for the right person with whom to raise a child – not because they lack the financial stability… or are otherwise distracted by their careers” [Ref: Jezebel].
Nonetheless, many still point the finger at companies and the economy for encouraging women to delay having children. Joachim Boldt of the University of Freiburg argues: “The fact that women can’t combine a career and motherhood is a problem in our society.” [Ref: Deutsche Welle] Instead of “expensive, intrusive and unnatural” solutions, Linda Scott argues employers should “behave like decent world citizens” and improve workplace conditions through policies like maternity leave [Ref: World Economic Forum]. So, as corporations increasingly provide egg freezing benefits for female employees, are they empowering women by providing more freedom of choice, or is egg-freezing a cynical policy to keep women working?
Many critics are concerned about the potentially profound effects social egg freezing could have on how we view pregnancy and parenthood. As Christine Rosen observes, “individual choices have broader consequences, and a society in which young women routinely freeze their eggs could develop very different attitudes about children and the arc of a human life” [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. Rosemary Goring worries about the attitude of women who undergo this procedure: “[T]he chance to bring up a child is a privilege, not a right. It is not something to be put onto a bucket list, to be addressed when other boxes have been ticked” [Ref: Herald]. Likewise, commentator Charlotte Gill argues “it shifts the burden onto women to manage their biological clock … female nature shouldn’t have to be rescheduled, like an inconvenient appointment.” [Ref: Telegraph]
Others however point to the fact that the average age of child rearing has increased over the years, without any detrimental effects on children. Stephanie Bernstein and Claudia Wiesemann, ethicists from the University of Goettingen, point out: “Considering the risks of parenthood only with regard to general physical condition seems one-dimensional.” [Ref: MDPI]
Proponents welcome a change in the culture of parenthood and pregnancy. As Natalie Lampert reports, “peace of mind may be the primary benefit of egg-freezing” as “a large majority of the women who freeze their eggs will never try to use them” [Ref: New York Times Magazine]. The potential of egg freezing to also freeze the pressure created by the ‘female biological clock’ is an important, and often unexpected, benefit for many women. For journalist and author Sarah Richards, for example, freezing her eggs improved her dating life as it removed the pressure and expectation to address the baby question early in a relationship [Ref: Business Insider]. Leila Nejafi views her frozen eggs as an “insurance policy” that is as much about improving her current quality of life as it is about potentially becoming a mother in the future [Ref: Huffington Post].
Will social egg freezing inspire a positive culture shift, stopping women from feeling like they are “on the clock” and “out of control” of their own bodies [Ref: Huffington Post]? Or will there be a negative impact on motherhood, with more tired, older mothers who have long prioritised their own desires and career above having a child?
The unexpected freedom that comes with freezing your eggs
Natalie Lampert New York Times Magazine 11 December 2019
What I wish someone had told me before I decided to freeze my eggs
Leila Najafi Huffington Post 6 December 2019
I took control of my biology clock at age 30
Aidan Madigan-Curtis Huffington Post 6 December 2017
The success of the latest egg freezing technology dispels scaremongering headlines
Dr Greeta Nargund Huffington Post 18 September 2015
Having the option to freeze your eggs is great – but you still can’t future proof your fertility
Rebecca Reid Grazia 6 December 2019
The millennial egg freezing trend could prove a backwards step for feminism
Charlotte Gill The Telegraph 7 November 2019
Single women are paying thousands to freeze their eggs – but at what cost?
Suzanne Bearne Guardian 23 March 2019
Rosemary Goring: The cold-hearted calculation when women choose to freeze their eggs
Rosemary Goring Herald 14 June 2016
Egg freezing has become standard practice for big companies, but what are the pros and cons
Nassia Matsa Screen Shot 28 November 2019
Family business: the London firms paying for their employees’ fertility bills
Lucy Tobin Evening Standard 27 November 2019
We need to talk about egg freezing
Eva Wiseman Guardian 7 February 2016
Egg freezing won’t solve our childcare problem
Elsa Makouezi, Spiked 7 January 2015
Amy Klein Aeon 6 January 2015
How likely are you to conceive a baby after freezing your eggs?
Catriona Harvey-Jenner Cosmopolitan 9 January 2020
Everything you could ever want to know about freezing your eggs
Alice Gibbs Dazed Beauty 10 December 2019
A 34-year-old who froze her eggs said it transformed her dating life for the better
Canela López Business Insider 4 December 2019
Is boutique egg-freezing a scam?
Molly Osberg Jezebel 26 November 2019
From egg freezing to flexible schedules, are organisations finally offering benefits to attract women?
Kim Elsesser Forbes 22 August 2019
France warms up to egg-freezing
Marion Splletty Politico 23 June 2019
Ovally Turns Egg Freezing Into A Cheaper, More Relaxed Experience With A Trip To Spain
Bérénice Magistretti Forbes 21 May 2019
Boom in egg-freezing is down to ‘selfish MEN’ and not career-minded women, claims academic who’s spent years researching the trend
Kylie Baldwin and Nicola Gill Daily Mail 6 February 2019
Women still have to use their frozen eggs in 10 years – or lose them. Why?
Eleanor Morgan Guardian 28 January 2019
Turning back the biological click comes at a price
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet Guardian 25 July 2016
Who should we believe when it comes to fertility?
New Scientist 20 July 2016
Subsidised egg freezing isn’t the answer to Japan’s birth rate
Alex Petropanagos New Scientist 17 June 2016
‘Social’ egg-freezing is a hideous fertility gamble
Viv Groskop Guardian 9 February 2016
Egg freezing is a tempting option: but can women be sure it’s the right choice?
Harriet Meyer Guardian 24 October 2015
What it’s like to freeze your eggs
Alice Mann Telegraph 10 October 2015
The Times 12 September 2015
Everything we still don’t know about freezing human eggs
Simon Zhang Wired 12 August 2015
Why egg freezing is not the answer
Linda Scott World Economic Forum 6 March 2015
The Ethics of Egg Freezing
Christine Rosen Wall Street Journal 3 May 2013
Social egg freezing: empowering but not an insurance policy
Gillian Lockwood Guardian 24 October 2014
IN THE NEWS
China blocked her from freezing her eggs. So she sued.
Sui-Lee Wee and Elsie Chen New York Times 23 December 2019
Family Business: the London firms paying for their employees’ fertility bills
Lucy Tobin Evening Standard 27 November 2019
Women should be able to freeze eggs for more than 10 years, say campaigners
Rachel Moss Huffington Post 29 October 2019
Toddler aged two with cancer becomes youngest patient to have her eggs frozen
Daily Mail 2 July 2016
Japan city helps women freeze eggs to boost birth rate
BBC News 16 June 2016
Number of women freezing their eggs triples in just five years
Telegraph 23 March 2016
Pentagon to offer plan to store eggs and sperm to retain young troops
Michael S Schmidt New York Times 3 February 2016
Egg freezing: ‘We mustn’t give women false hopes’
The Times 12 September 2015
Senior NHS doctor tells women ‘have baby before 30’
Telegraph 31 May 2015
Apple and Facebook offer to freeze eggs for female employees
Mark Tran Guardian 15 October 2014