Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The False Promises of Frozen Eggs

Last week, the news broke that Apple and Facebook are both offering a new benefit to female employees. Both companies will now cover up to $20,000 of the cost for women to extract and freeze their eggs as an elective procedure, a sizable financial commitment on their part.

It is easy to see that number and be impressed. It's easy to think that these companies are investing soundly in the individuals in their workforce, that they are making a huge leap forward here. It's easy to believe that they are doing this to benefit the women who work for them, for their futures, for the families they plan to someday create.

It's easy, but it's misleading.

The truth is that this policy of covering these procedures isn't really being extended for the benefit of the female employees nearly as much as it is being done for the benefit of the companies.

In encouraging women to delay motherhood, the companies are hoping to keep a solid workforce, one that isn't marked by women leaving either temporarily or permanently to have children. They want to keep their most productive employees in the building and are willing to pay a little extra this way to keep them there. This is not much different than the firms that entice workers with on-site gyms and other amenities.

"You have no reason to leave work!", the recruiters say with a subtle mischievous grin.

Wait. This is work. This isn't life.

You're supposed to leave work. 

These companies are banking on the idea that freezing eggs will be enough of a security blanket for the women climbing the workplace ladder. They are telling their female employees this: We value you, but we value you more if you choose to delay having a family. In fact, we value you without a family so much that we'll pay for you to not have children now.

Doesn't seem like such a generous benefit anymore, does it?

Egg freezing isn't a guarantee of future pregnancies. The idea that it exists as a guarantee is false, and feeds into this bizarre societal insistence that we should be in control of things that we can't control. The pregnancy success rate using frozen, unfertilized eggs isn't nearly as high as most people believe it to be. Current studies put that number at somewhere around 3 in 10, though those studies involve women using the process because of diagnosed infertility, not because of the election to delay motherhood.

The science of freezing eggs is something that developed only within the last few decades. Originally for women undergoing cancer treatments or who had some other compelling medical reason to extract and freeze eggs, the process is now looked at as just another way to put off parenthood, even though it was never intended for that use. ACOG and the American Society of Reproductive Medicine both discourage egg retrieval and freezing for elective reasons. 

Why?

Egg retrieval can be dangerous. They recommend against elective retrieval and freezing because it isn't a simple process. To extract eggs, a women must undergo a fairly involved process of hormone injections and procedures, all of which carry some health risks, not the least of which is the potential for fatal blood clots.

The hormones involved in extraction are administered in high dosages, which can lead to all kinds of side effects including emotional disturbances.

Who pays for the IVF down the line? The egg retrievals are covered, but what about ten or fifteen years from now when these female employees decide it is time to have a child? Assuming they need to tap into the frozen egg vault for whatever reason, that they cannot become pregnant without using those eggs, who is going to pay for the fertilization and implantation, for all the additional hormone regimens and procedures later on down the road to attempt to create successful pregnancies with these long-ago frozen eggs? None of that is cheap, and unless the companies are also willing to pay for the rest of the process down the road, what is the point other than to just give women hope that they can have it all - the wildly successful career now, the family later?
These companies are asking their female employees to put their trust in a medical process that isn't a guarantee, to delay motherhood in order to focus on their careers alone, and they are doing it for their own purposes. Rolling it out to seem like it is just for the benefit of the employees is misleading at best.

There are many who say that companies have done this for decades, and it's true. Women have had to face choices in their lives about this issue for a long time. Do they focus on their career, put off the family and hope for the best? Do they choose to start their families when they are younger, potentially derailing their careers? Do they attempt to have it all - the career and the family?

Some come to the defense of the companies in this respect because at least now they are providing women with a tangible option to help make that decision to delay childbearing for their career. Freezing eggs gives women a marginally better chance to be able to have children later on, this is true, but is this really being done for the benefit of those future families?

Even more important, what does it say about work/life issues for everyone?

If these companies really wanted to demonstrate their commitment to the choices of their employees when it comes to a work/life balance, perhaps they should be thinking about extending other benefits. They should be talking about the kind of benefits that could help employees in every position achieve a better work/life balance - whether they are male or female, parents or not.

- Paid maternity leaves. Most women save up time off, then tack on an unpaid FMLA leave for 6 weeks. Apple and Facebook both have generous leave policies as compared to national averages, but this is a larger issue that needs to be addressed.

- Add paid paternity leaves.

- Give employees more time off generally.

- Allow employees to take time off or work from home when their children are ill.

- In-house daycare.

- Flexible work schedules.

- Job sharing.

- Telecommuting.

- Salary equality among men and women in the same positions.

The way the world works these days, we are all connected 24/7 it seems, tethered to the internet with the phones and tablets we carry everywhere we go. Why then do we need to still feel confined by the traditional 8 hour work day, housed in an office when we do everything on a computer anyway?

Simple. We don't. These companies could acknowledge that truth, extend more flexibility to all their employees, and make a much more salient point about wanting their workers to have a good work/life balance.

Instead, what they have done here is the exact opposite. Under the guise of providing women options, they are instead dangling a carrot in front of the faces of women who are already being pressured to delay motherhood. Except that this carrot, as much as it looks perfect now is a carrot that they may never reach, a carrot that might be useless when they need it.

Telling women they can freeze their eggs and trick the clock is just another way to manipulate us into believing that we can have it all, that we can control every single aspect of our lives, that we can put our lives into tiny boxes, separate ourselves into decades of production, delay something that biology tells us we shouldn't.

As humans, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can fool time.

Now, some of us are just getting paid for it.

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