Just last week, I argued at a conference on postponed motherhood that speculation about employers pressuring staff to freeze their eggs seemed unrealistic. The next day, Facebook proved me wrong.
Facebook, and now Apple, have taken the initiative to cover the costs of egg freezing for their employees so that they can 'construct the lives they want' (see BioNews 776). More specifically, women can postpone motherhood and dedicate their most fertile and productive years to their professional careers without having to worry about their biological clocks. This idea fits in perfectly with the philosophy of Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg that women should 'lean in' and be more ambitious in building their careers. Young mothers, apparently, do not belong in the board room.
In itself, the idea of highly educated women freezing a reserve of healthy young eggs is quite attractive. The years in which their careers need to be built (say between the ages of 25 and 35) are also the years in which they have to start a family. Both of these objectives are very demanding and thus neither can be achieved perfectly if they are pursued simultaneously. This is for example reflected in the 'wage penalty' for young mothers, especially when they are highly educated (1). Thus, while our gynaecologists may urge us to have children at a young age, it is not the smartest course of action from a socio-economic point of view. Conclusion: company-sponsored egg freezing to counter age-related fertility decline is a blessing for the modern woman, who no longer has to make compromises that men do not need to make. Another battle won in the fight for gender equality. Or not?
The concept of employers offering this technology to their employees is problematic for at least three reasons.
First of all, egg freezing is often misleadingly portrayed as an insurance policy instead of a last resort. Each frozen egg cell represents a small chance of a healthy live birth, and those chances decline fast after a woman's 35th birthday. Rather than an insurance policy, women are instead buying lottery tickets. If they buy a lot of tickets (that is, if they are able to bank a large number of good quality egg cells), they have a reasonable chance of success, but uncertainty is a fundamental feature of the system (2). Facebook and Apple are therefore investing in a false sense of security. They are certain to get a return on that investment, but are their employees?
Secondly, this offer can put pressure on women who previously had no intent to postpone motherhood, to do so against their better judgement. Although Facebook has also introduced a number of family-friendly policies, this one creates the impression that the job is not compatible with motherhood. Whereas company-sponsored egg freezing may be a perk for those women who already wanted to postpone motherhood, it becomes a coercive offer for those who did not.
A third problem with this system is that a situation is created in which women 'owe' their employers. A single woman who freezes her eggs at age 30 and bumps into Mr Right the next day may want to embark on parenthood the year after. Will she be free from outside pressure to go ahead, or will the frozen eggs be regarded by both parties (employer and employee) as an 'addendum' to the employment contract in which the employee has promised not to get pregnant in the first years to follow? Also, what happens when she changes jobs?
Besides these three issues, other ethical problems may arise, for instance on the provision of information. As this is a medical intervention, women should receive information about the risks and success rates from a professional, not from their employer who is neither qualified nor neutral.