News about Silicon Valley’s egg-freezing perk has ignited many much-needed conversations about the tech industry’s family-unfriendly workplaces and policies that make it hard to reconcile being a mother and having a job. But of dozens of articles and blog posts, only a few have noted that establishing egg freezing as an employee benefit for a small number of privileged women is a bad idea across the board. For women who opt to freeze their eggs, the procedure’s safety is dubious; for everyone else, the practice shifts the focus away from the social changes that working families urgently need.
Defenders of the egg-freezing offer have welcomed it as an “option” for women lucky enough to work for Facebook or Apple—itself a highly limited career path, as recently compiled statistics about the lack of diversity in high-tech companies can attest. Like its lexical sister “choice,” “option” often functions as a trump card in potentially fraught debates like this one. I’m not arguing that “choice” or “options” are unimportant, but we need to to situate them in broader social contexts, too, including those of class, race, and gender.
Perhaps it’s unfair to link upscale frozen eggs to the overwhelming issue of economic inequality. But it’s worth noting that the dilemma of “work-family balance,” which seems to have spurred these corporations’ initiatives, is connected to the struggle for reproductive justice. Through that lens, we need policies that support women—all women—if and when they decide to have children, as well as if and when they decide not to bear a child.
Companies like Apple and Facebook are trend-setters, and their decisions about how to spend human resources budgets may well affect other corporate employers. That influence could be wielded in any number of ways. Imagine, for instance, that instead of upping the ante in the escalating “perk war” to attract and retain high-end employees, Apple and Facebook had worked with the HR departments of the security firms, caterers, and other companies with which they contract to develop basic parent-friendly benefits.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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After all, it’s safe to say that few working women in Silicon Valley or elsewhere would otherwise spend an unexpected $20,000 to put their eggs on ice. In every state in the country, $20,000 is more than a year’s salary at the hourly minimum wage. Even middle-income women would be far more likely to allocate such a windfall toward enrolling a toddler in a higher quality preschool, putting more food on the table, taking time off to take care of a newborn or sick parent, or signing up for a better health-care plan. Yet rather than committing to strategies that could conceivably aid families at all points on the employment spectrum, Facebook and Apple evidently chose to put time and money toward an extremely narrow slice of the population.
Furthermore, because egg freezing is a medical procedure, we need to assess its safety as well. In that context, the procedure is an “option,” all right—but one that is risky, invasive, and highly unreliable.
Egg retrieval itself is neither simple nor safe. It involves weeks of injections with powerful hormones, some used off-label, to hyper-stimulate the ovaries. Nausea, bloating, and discomfort are common. More serious reactions requiring hospitalization—including severe pain, intra-abdominal bleeding, and ovarian torsion—occur at low, but not negligible, rates. Deaths, though fortunately rare, have been reported.
Some studies suggest that egg retrieval is associated with higher rates of infertility and cancer. But shockingly, though the fertility industry has harvested eggs for decades, there have been too few follow-up studies to ascertain the extent of these longer-term risks.
With so much that is unstudied or under-studied about the safety of egg retrieval, meeting the bioethical standard of “informed consent” for patients is actually quite challenging. Of course, women who freeze their own eggs for possible later use, like those who undergo egg retrieval when they’re actively pursuing a pregnancy, often say they’re willing to take risks because of their deep desire for a genetically related child.
But even the motivating strategy here—work and freeze now, then mother later—carries low odds of success. According to a 2013 meta-analysis, even the newest flash-freezing method fails up to 77 percent of the time among women age 30, and close to 90 percent of the time in women age 40.
Then there’s the matter of safety for children who result from frozen-and-thawed eggs. The chemicals used in the freezing process are toxic, but no one knows whether they’re absorbed by embryos, or whether that might cause problems as children get older. Even the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, whose fertility clinic members have an arguable financial interest in promoting expensive new procedures, discourages egg freezing for elective, non-medical reasons.
Though it’s unfortunate that Facebook and Apple are endorsing an unproven technique that puts their own employees’ health at risk, it makes sense that this quick-fix engineering approach would appeal to high-tech giants used to reshaping the world with gadgets and gizmos. And while they probably weren’t expecting the backlash, covering the egg-freezing tab to keep more of their female employees “leaning in” for more hours, and more years, may turn out to be a net plus for the companies. A lucky few women among this already tiny minority may also wind up winners, with higher-powered careers, and babies too.
But egg freezing is an individualized, questionably effective technical fix for what is fundamentally a social problem—or, rather, a whole raft of them. Let’s hope the next round of conversations about work and families includes strategies for confronting those issues, too, such as public policies and family-friendly workplaces that support reasonable and gender-equitable wages, paid parental leave, quality health care, and affordable child care for all of us.