The US Department of Defense will offer to pay for active service members to have their sperm or eggs frozen in an effort to retain troops.
The programme was announced by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in a speech at the Pentagon, one of the world's largest employers. A pilot programme will first run for two years before the policy could become permanent.
'This investment will provide greater flexibility for our troops who want to start a family, but find it difficult because of where they find themselves in their careers. We want to retain them in our military,' Mr Carter said.
The initiative forms part of a larger programme aimed at improving the retention rate of female personnel in the US military, who are 30 percent more likely to leave the service after ten years than men. The proposals include longer maternity leave, improved childcare and the introduction of lactation rooms at military facilities.
'Particularly for women who are midgrade officers and enlisted personnel, this benefit will demonstrate that we understand the demands upon them and want to help them balance commitments to force and commitments to family,' Mr Carter said.
The programme is now also intended to ensure that troops who have suffered injuries to their reproductive organs in the battlefield will still have the chance to have genetically related children.
Following similar initiatives by companies such as Facebook and Apple (see BioNews 776), the Pentagon’s pilot will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs, which can be more than $10,000 (£6,900).
'As many families know all too well, these treatments are very expensive and often require multiple attempts,' a Pentagon spokesperson told the New York Times. 'In addition to hormone therapies and egg and sperm freezing, we are going to continue looking at ways to provide additional support for these types of treatments in the future.'
However, some commentators have expressed concern about the low success rates of egg freezing and the programme sending the message that women can’t combine work with having a family. TIME also asks whether the option could turn into an expectation in military service, especially during wartime, and could put pressure on women to put their fertility on hold using a risky procedure.
Success rates for conception with frozen eggs is low and as the technique is relatively new, data is limited. The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority reports that up to December 2012 the use of stored eggs had resulted in the creation of 580 embryos that were transferred to women in around 160 cycles. This resulted in around 20 live births, although new freezing techniques have been shown to improve the thawing process and therefore success rates. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine only lifted the 'experimental' label from vitrification in 2012 (see BioNews 681).
The storage of gametes also raises questions around their future use and control. Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University told the New York Times said freezing gametes is is 'not like freezing chicken for dinner'.
'What happens if you die, can your wife use it? And what if your mother wants grandchildren and your wife doesn't, does that mean the sperm can be used with a surrogate? And what happens if the company housing your sperm or eggs goes bankrupt?' he said.
He added that the Pentagon should inform its employees that egg freezing is not always successful and can cause complications.