Lucy Morgan critiques the corporate and political framings of egg freezing as a “solution” to delayed motherhood.
Earlier this year Timeless, a fictional beauty brand, opened a pop-up shop in London, United Kingdom. Timeless aims to raise public awareness about the growing demand for social egg freezing, a technology that was only recently labelled non-experimental by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. It provides clear information about the ethical, financial, and social implications of this technology, while encouraging public debate.
Theoretically, egg freezing gives women more time to exert agency and control over their fertility. It is presented as a liberating option, allowing women to “have it all,” to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them, and to become psychologically, economically, and relationally secure before having children. Advocates of the technology argue that it would be wrong to deny women their right to this reproductive solution.
Framing egg freezing as a solution benefits corporations and governments. It is much easier for business people and politicians to encourage women to have children later than it is to enact corporate or structural changes, such as flexible working hours and better parental leave packages. Corporations that promote or fund egg freezing get positive press and public recognition for “improving gender equality.” Yet, typically, they avoid tackling the larger underlying issues that can lead to delayed motherhood.
Having more options does not guarantee reproductive autonomy; choices made within a constrained system are not truly free. Reproductive decisions are made within an environment, where the structurally imposed constraints of working hours, economic hardship, and dating, limit autonomy. Egg freezing does not change the social conditions that have lead to a slow rise in the age at which women first have children. Instead, it makes each individual woman responsible for managing all the complications surrounding her future fertility.
Furthermore, the view that egg freezing is purely liberating disregards the extent to which reproduction and technologies are subject to legislation. The fear that science will get ahead of us has led to a surge in the desire to regulate new reproductive technologies, so as to avoid or minimize negative consequences. As the prevalence of egg freezing grows, and each legislative act is made, the forest of policy surrounding the technology thickens.
I believe such regulation in itself is not wrong. Some restrictions are necessary for ensuring the health and safety of women who undergo the treatment and for any future children born from this technology. However, most policies are not necessarily or strictly concerned with the welfare of such women and children. Each policy is representative of the potentially conflicting desires and agendas of governments, interested groups, influential officials and corporations.
Governments and political parties use egg freezing to appeal to different demographics within the electorate, or to achieve their demographic and economic goals. For example, in the United Kingdom, eggs frozen for “non-medical” reasons may only be stored for ten years. Sarah Norcross, co-chair of Fertility Fairness, claims that this policy move was made for “no logical reason, just because they were a bit uncomfortable about women freezing their eggs.” Similar storage restrictions are found in 25 countries across the globe.
While most women are freezing their eggs in their late 30s, the ideal time to undergo the procedure is when women are in their mid to late 20s, when their higher fertility means one cycle of extraction is likely to produce a higher number of healthy eggs. However, women in jurisdictions with storage limits who follow this medical advice, risk having their frozen eggs discarded when they are only in their mid to late 30s, at a time when they may still want to delay having children. In such instances, the huge financial, emotional, and physical cost of the procedure will not result in an attempt at pregnancy. Women who freeze their eggs later to avoid this possibility tend to have lower fertility levels and the procedure is less likely to be successful. As such, the legislation, ironically, places a time-constraint on a procedure that is meant to remove it.
Corporate framing of egg freezing and legislation such as the ten year storage limit add more layers to the already complex reproductive decision making process. They introduce further gambles that must be taken. If I’m not ready to parent now, will I be ready in ten years? Will I have found a partner by then? Will the procedure be successful? And, if I have a child in ten years, will I be in a better financial position? Will my workplace adapt so that I can take time off without falling behind? Does my workplace even have the motivation to do so?
The introduction of social egg freezing does not solve these unknowns. Rather, it falsely promises autonomy, while structural constraints remain unchanged.
Lucy Morgan is completing a BA (Hons) in sociology at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. @LEJMorg