by Errol Price
In recent months U.S. technology giants Apple and Facebook both announced a decision to provide financial cover to female employees for a significant part of the costs associated with freezing their eggs. The ostensible objective of this new policy is to allow women the opportunity to schedule their pregnancies to align better with their career goals, although female employees could well take advantage of this for other equally valid reasons.
The new policy adopted by these companies has re-ignited a furious debate about elective or ‘social’ egg freezing in general and whether it is right or appropriate for employers to intrude into the area of female procreation at all. It, also, naturally gives rise to the question of whether Australian organisations should facilitate access by their female employees to this medical procedure with its potential to radically extend choices available to women in the workforce. Female egg freezing (the technical term is ‘oocyte cryopreservation’) is not new. It has existed for some three decades. Nor for that matter is elective egg freezing. However the decision of corporates to provide this benefit is indeed very new.
It is timeous for Australian employers and employees to engage in a debate as to whether elective egg freezing is a desirable benefit to be offered to female employees by their employers as an addition to the currently existing ways of facilitating work-life integration.
THE CASE FOR
Women’s fertility declines steadily in their 30s
Oocyte cryopreservation in 2015 is a relatively safe medical procedure. Natural fertility in women starts to decline after age 33 and by age 40 only 20 per cent of women can conceive naturally. Most experts consider the optimal age for child bearing to be between ages 25 and 35, taking factors such as emotional preparedness and the physical ability to carry a pregnancy.
Women have a right to control their own bodies
Many women consider that children will be or could be an important part of their lives but they are not all ready to fall pregnant and assume the obligations of motherhood during the ‘ideal’ period. The reasons for delay may be one or a combination of factors: not having the right partner; educational, professional and career priorities; other carer obligations; financial considerations; ambivalence about having children; and feeling unready to be a mother. Women have a moral right to have control over their own bodies and to exercise available options regarding the timing of conceiving and raising children.
It’s liberating for women
Women recognise and understand that there is no guarantee that egg freezing will produce a successful pregnancy in the future. However, it is an important additional element which empowers them in two significant respects.
Firstly, it unshackles them from the implacably ticking biological clock which may govern many of the decisions which they make in their child bearing years.
Secondly, it removes even if only to a limited extent, the disadvantage which women face in the workplace when competing against men – the fact that they may have to interrupt their career at a critical and very unfavourable juncture. In this respect, elective egg freezing may be as liberating for women as the contraceptive pill.
Most working women cannot afford egg freezing
The primary obstacle at present is financial. Very few countries cover elective egg freezing under government provided medical aid schemes. In Australia, Medicare will not pay for these procedures.
It therefore falls to employers to step into the breach and offer this as an option (together with paid parental leave, flexible work options, child care subsidisation and so forth) which will allow female employees to develop their talents and progress their careers until they are ready to take the time to have children. A properly-devised program for the subsidising of elective egg freezing need not place any additional pressures on women but rather free them to make more appropriate decisions at the right time.
THE CASE AGAINST
It’s a plot by men
The principal argument against corporate sponsored egg freezing is that it is a stratagem devised by male-controlled organisations to induce female employees to tamper with normal biological time lines, at best without regard to their emotional, physical and psychological well-being and at worst for exploitative motivations. Even if it appears that a valued female employee is autonomously and carefully weighing the pros and cons of employee-sponsored egg freezing for herself , she will be subjected to unspoken pressure from the employer to delay child-bearing.
The French Philosopher and theologian, Bertrand Vergely gravely warns that companies like Apple and Facebook, which interfere with the biological clocks of female employees ‘are meddling with the whole of humanity (in Le Figaro)’.
Working women will be commercially exploited by egg freezing factories
Currently, egg freezing is expensive (up to $10,000 for one freeze cycle and generally two cycles are recommended). It therefore makes women targets for exploitation by the unrestrained commercialisation of egg freezing by ‘freezing brokers’ – businesses that act in partnership with drug companies and fertility clinics. These organisations apply high pressure sales techniques for egg freezing and minimise the health risks and other disadvantages.
It is unethical to encourage women to reprogram their biology for commercial reasons
Opponents point out that the bio-ethical issues of elective egg freezing are obscured or entirely lost by suggesting to women that the only material factors to be weighed are economic health risks, finance and convenience. There are ethical considerations to extending the ability of the female body to bear children beyond that which nature has evolved, apart from the physical difficulties of carrying a pregnancy in a woman’s late 30s or early 40s.
Further, opponents maintain that it is unethical for a woman to interfere with or attempt to manipulate the natural reproductive cycle simply for lifestyle reasons.
It’s the workplace not women who need to change
Finally, opponents assert that resorting to something like egg freezing for career women is simply a means of disguising the real underlying issues. The labour market is structured in such a way that it is extremely difficult for women to exercise their basic biological right to have children in their 20s and 30s and not be thwarted from pursuing a career at the same time. Thus elective egg freezing is an artificial ‘fix’ when the real issue is how to reorganise the workplace so that women can have children as nature ordered it and not be marginalised in the work context if they do so.
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