Angel Petropanagos reflects on public debates about social egg freezing.
Social egg freezing is becoming more widespread as a result of increased media coverage, clever marketing strategies, employer benefits from companies including Apple and Facebook, and government funding in Japan.
I’ve been thinking and writing about the ethical issues surrounding social egg freezing and delayed motherhood (and fatherhood) for several years. And the public debates on these topics haven’t really changed.
Proponents of social egg freezing argue that this technology can promote women’s reproductive autonomy by affording them the option of delaying genetic reproduction and parenthood in order to pursue higher education or advance their career— an option that is generally available to men on the assumption that childcare is women’s work (so there will be a woman somewhere to care for his children while he pursues his education or advances his career).
Critics of social egg freezing raise concerns about the health risks to individual women and any resulting offspring. They also worry about the fact that most women who freeze their eggs likely will never use them for reproduction. This points to a service that is characterized by unnecessary physical risks to women and needless expenditures by them, and results in a surplus of stored biological material. Further, critics worry about “false hope” that can result from the use of a technology that is not guaranteed. Some feminists worry that social egg freezing detracts attention from broader social changes, such as improved parental leave, subsidized or universal daycare, and flexible work schedules that can make it easier for women (and men) to choose to have children at a younger age.A few weeks ago I participated in a panel discussion about social egg freezing and delayed motherhood hosted by the Progress Educational Trust in Edinburgh, Scotland. The discussion included mention of all of the ethical considerations listed above. We also discussed the role of the media in promoting social egg freezing and spreading misleading information, as well as the importance of language for framing this technology. Despite these discussions, I was disheartened to see that much of the public discussion and the media coverage of this event focused on mistaken assumptions about the women who might use this technology. Media coverage also framed reproductive health education within a pronatalist mandate, that is, as targeting girls and young women to educate them about age-related infertility in order to prevent them from “the risk of missing motherhood.”
First, many people mistakenly assume that women delay childbearing because they are “picky” and waiting for “Mr. Right.” The reasons for delayed coupling that facilitates childbearing are complex. For example, women who have graduate degrees and demanding careers may have relocated several times, which can make it difficult to find a partner. The financial and time demands of work can leave some women without enough resources or energy to have kids at a younger age. Many women may be on second or third marriages and childbearing didn’t work out. Or, they may have children and want additional children with their new partner.
A second problem is the heteronormativity that permeates discussions of social egg freezing. Not all women who delay childbearing or contemplate social egg freezing are looking for Mr. Right. Some women may be looking for Ms. Right, while others may be choosing to parent alone, within polyamorous relationships, queer kinships or committed friendship communities. Discussions about social egg freezing should not assume or reinforce heteronormative nuclear family structures for raising children.
Third, people often assume that delayed motherhood is all about individual women’s choices. Indeed, public discussions typically fail to adequately address the role that men play in reproductive decision-making. Men also make choices around delayed parenthood, and for women who want to have children with men, this matters.
Fourth, women’s and men’s reproductive decisions are embedded within social contexts that help to shape their reproductive desires and values. For example, there is a pervasive social pressure to have genetically related children and “real” womanhood is often equated with motherhood. These pressures occur alongside social education and employment structures that make actually raising children really difficult, especially for people who lack adequate financial or social supports.
Finally, not all women want children. Discussions about social egg freezing assume that women without children, particularly those with advanced degrees or careers, have chosen to delay childbearing in order to achieve education and employment goals. Seldom do public discussions recognize that remaining childfree is a valuable option for some women. Widespread social pressure to freeze one’s eggs undermines the validity of this option.
Advancing public discussions of the ethics surrounding social egg freezing requires that we move beyond analyses of individual women’s choices. Social egg freezing is the result of social and systemic structural problems that influence decision-making. As such, addressing the concerns surrounding delayed motherhood (or parenthood more generally, for that matter) requires widespread social change.
Angel Petropanagos is a Research Associate at Novel Tech Ethics at Dalhousie University and a Visiting Scholar at the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto. @APetropanagos