Egg Freezing: Empowering, or Are We On Thin Ice?

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Egg Freezing: Empowering, or Are We On Thin Ice?

Kathleen Reeves

A woman in her twenties who doesn’t want to have a baby yet is fine with us, but a woman in her late thirties seems to be a different story.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, the author of In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment, and Motherhood, spoke about her decision to freeze her eggs on NPR’s "Talk of the Nation" yesterday. Lehmann-Haupt has seen both sides of the debate over egg freezing—she first decided not to do it, at age 35, and then reconsidered two years later.

While egg freezing was invented by scientists at the University of Bologna, in Italy, in the eighties, it didn’t receive a great deal of attention in the United States until a company called Extend Fertility began offering the technology in 2003. Lehmann-Haupt was wary of the promotion of the technology as “a source of empowerment,” not because she doesn’t think it’s empowering, but because she was skeptical of the relationship between Extend Fertility and its potential customers, as she says in her book, an excerpt of which appears in this week’s Newsweek:

I wondered if this new company was too aggressively trying to cash in on well-heeled women’s anxiety by turning them into guinea pigs and, more broadly, whether women should rely on technology to postpone motherhood.

Lehmann-Haupt decided not to freeze her eggs at this first encounter with the company, but after two years and a failed relationship, she flew to Italy to look into the procedure again. Her discussion with one of the Italian doctors who developed oocyte cryopreservation is one of the most interesting parts of her story. The technology was invented as an alternative to freezing embryos, which was nixed by the Catholic Church in Italy, and what it’s developed into—a way to extend fertility—has divided the doctors who were its creators. Dr. Raffaella Fabbri, a biologist, supports its commercial use, while Dr. Eleanora Porcu, whom Lehmann-Haupt describes on the NPR segment as “of an older-fashioned Italian culture, Catholic” does not. Dr. Porcu argues that egg freezing is anti-feminist:

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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"It means that we’re accepting a mentality of efficiency in which pregnancy and motherhood are marginalized," she says. "We’ve demonstrated that we are able to do everything like men," she continues. "Now we have to do the second revolution, which is not to become dependent on a technology that involves surgical intervention. We have to be free to be pregnant when we are fertile and young."

We’re in a bad way, Porcu seems to be saying, if we are forced to fight against our biology. Callers on “Talk of the Nation,” all women, echoed this idea. One caller who called herself a pro-choice feminist and who adopted around the age of 40 said emphatically, “Biology works. There’s a reason why, when you get past a certain age, it’s really, really hard, actually, to be a mother, and maybe that time has passed.”

Is egg freezing received differently in our culture than other biology-tweaking technologies like the birth control pill or IVF because it’s newer, and we just haven’t gotten used to it, or because extending your fertility is less savory, somehow, than postponing it? A woman in her twenties who doesn’t want to have a baby yet is fine with us, but a woman in her late thirties seems to be a different story.

Another caller, a family physician, said she had twins naturally at age 36, and in the next breath argued that “the older you are the more high-risk your pregnancy is,” which is exactly how someone may have chided her twenty or thirty years ago for getting pregnant at age 36. As Lehmann-Haupt points out, the number of women having children between the ages of 35 and 44 has doubled since the eighties.

Lehmann-Haupt agrees that the workforce should be much more amenable to motherhood. But she defers, finally, to individual choice.

The debate has a socioeconomic dimension, of course, which complicates things. Whereas contraception is affordable and accessible to many women in the United States, egg freezing, at 15,000 dollars, is not. But fertility and reproduction is, more and more, socioeconomically fraught. Discussing other fertility options with one caller who’d had a hysterectomy, Lehmann-Haupt said, sounding slightly uncomfortable:

“It’s quite surreal, but people are beginning to, actually, outsource wombs to India these days.”

“Huh!” the caller said, interested.

As women who cannot or choose not to have children during their fertile years explore other options, someone, somewhere will find these other options to be unnatural or troubling. Egg freezing is only the latest technology to challenge our ideas about biology and choice.