Ever since the news broke on Tuesday of Facebook and Apple’s new policy of including egg freezing as a job benefit for women, there has been significant discussion and controversy surrounding the strategy. While debate on issues pertaining to gender and awareness of fertility and reproductive ethics issues is always welcome, we must also consider what implications this policy will have for women; namely, whether egg freezing could be used to limit or control women’s reproductive options.
As Claire Cain Miller discusses in an article in The New York Times, egg-freezing policies can be seen as companies paying women to put off childbearing. Miller correctly points out that enacting such policies could stigmatize women who choose to have babies earlier in their careers, indicating that they are in some way uncommitted to their job.
Women should not in any way feel pressured or coerced into freezing their eggs in order to indicate that they are taking their job seriously and are deserving of promotion. A woman’s decision to retrieve and freeze her eggs should not be based on the assumption that her employer will view her more favorably because she has taken active steps to postpone childbearing, and will not take maternity leave for some time, if at all. Moreover, framing the egg retrieval and freezing process as an elective, casual procedure or “job perk” may undermine the importance of a thorough informed consent process; it is crucial that individuals undergoing this procedure – like any medical procedure – fully comprehend all the potential risks as well as benefits that could result from the process.
To be sure, egg freezing can also be viewed as a way to expand women’s reproductive autonomy and options. The arguments in favor of egg freezing are not new: the process allows women to store eggs for future use for a variety of reasons, including fertility concerns after cancer treatment, economic reasons, and the most widely-cited example: allowing women to put off having children in order to focus on their careers.
Of course, freezing eggs is no guarantee of a woman becoming pregnant later in life, or of the eggs’ general viability. While the American Society for Reproductive Medicine lifted its “experimental” label from the egg freezing procedure two years ago, it still cautions using egg freezing as a way to extend fertility. Additionally, the process of egg retrieval is not as simple as a blood test or sperm donation – it is an invasive procedure that takes approximately two weeks from start to finish.
Will egg freezing be seen as the new standard for women in the workplace? Will women be expected to freeze their eggs in order to be seen as competitive employees? Will frozen eggs be viewed as an “asset” for women, along the lines of having a steady job, a good credit score, and home ownership? Will women who choose not to freeze their eggs be viewed as irresponsible, or less serious about their careers?
While it is a refreshing expansion of the stale “Can women have it all?” discussion, the dialogue should not end here; it should continue until women are no longer defined by whether or not they decide to have children. It should also continue until employers address the needs of working parents, such as childcare, paid family leave, and more flexible work arrangements, and do not under any circumstances believe that egg-freezing policies make up for or take the place of family-friendly work benefits.
While technology and procedures like egg freezing that expand women’s reproductive options can be a welcome development, we also must be cautious and ensure that these options remain just that – options – and are in no way used to limit or control women’s reproductive autonomy.
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist at the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University, editor of Ethics & Society, and coordinates the HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute.