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Defending life from the moment of conception

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Career benefits with strings attached

Posted by Rhoslyn Thomas on 20 November 2014

It has been well documented that in January 2014, Facebook began offering its employees twenty thousand dollars worth of oocyte cryopreservation (egg freezing) in its health insurance plan.

Next year, Apple plans to do the same.

The reaction of the public and of many news sources was fairly negative (the Irish Times being an exception here), which was a pleasant surprise to those of us who had all but given up on a prevailing sense of moral decency in the mainstream media.

To point out the obvious, before discussing this topic in detail, eggs are frozen now so that they may be used later in IVF (In-Vitro Fertilisation). IVF poses so many problems it is difficult to know where to begin, but the first problem mentioned must be that multiple embryos (that is, human beings at the earliest stage of development) will be created (because the failure rate is so high, multiple embryos are created so that there is some chance that at least one of them will survive). After the undesired (‘abnormal’ or surplus) embryos have been discarded, a few remaining embryos or in some countries, a larger number of embryos, may be implanted in the womb. If more than one or two embryos implant, the others may be killed off (the famous ‘Octomom’ refused to do this, which is why she gave birth to eight babies). This is called ‘selective fetal reduction’. It may come as quite a shock to readers to realise that people who have paid thousands upon thousands to conceive their children will then abort one or more of them. It is tragic and a very real part of the IVF process for some. Kristin Hawkins has written a more detailed article here.

The fact is that men and women are getting married later than ever before. In fact, The Telegraph reported,

“The UK delays having babies for longer than any other country, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. British women tend to wait an extra five years to have their first child compared with those in the United States, where the average age is 25, the OECD said.”

It is perhaps unfair to say that people are waiting to get married and have children. Nowadays, marriage is not presented as something which should even be considered at a young age. It seems that young people are increasingly encouraged to get the best education possible, to make a nest egg for themselves in the form of a career, a house, a pension. These are all good things in themselves, but shouldn’t people, and specifically women (since they are the new focus of this twenty-first century pressure), be allowed to choose for themselves, with no one leaning on them to do the ‘sensible’ thing? And shouldn’t the possibility of getting married at a young age be presented as a concept which can exist outside of well-known reality shows about gypsies?

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has coined a term: women in the workplace should “lean in”. Sandberg has written in her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead: “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,”.

Undoubtedly, there are women who are on their way to a big career, a big salary and lots of responsibility in the workplace. Perhaps many women don’t want to “lean in”, however, and perhaps these same women do not fit either into the stereotype of the woman who marries early in order to have as many children as possible. Can we please consider the very likely possibility that most women are somewhere in the middle? And why should these women be pressured or enticed into freezing their eggs when it is presented as a so-called benefit by their employer? Freezing eggs is neither natural, comfortable, cheap nor popular.

The initial price tag is covered by Apple and Facebook but the maintenance fees of up to £500 a year are not. The Guardian reports that “The tech giant [Facebook] chose to offer it in part because of employee requests, according to the company’s media agency.” I think the vital words here are, according to the company’s media agency.

The Guardian have also pointed out that the offer of egg-freezing may work in much the same way as Richard Branson’s Virgin Group’s policy of giving employees unlimited holiday…in theory. The only catch is that employees can only take time off as holiday if they are certain that they are “up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business – or, for that matter, their careers!” Not exactly what it seems at first glance.

It’s easy to look at the policy of egg freezing from an outsider’s point of view, especially with the knowledge that Facebook offers four months of paid leave for both parents and $4,000 for expenses for the baby, and say that Apple and Facebook are moving with the times and adapting to their employees’ changing values and priorities. But are they really providing employees with an equal choice? Employees could plan for a family whilst at Facebook and take advantage of maternity leave, but why not take advantage of this new and better benefit? Ladies, what’s wrong with you? Why not “lean in”?

There is also the obvious concern that a woman is much more likely to be successful in conceiving if she tries (with due regard for what is morally responsible) as soon as she is able to do so. Offering egg freezing implies that whether you conceive naturally now or freeze your eggs for a later date, it’s all the same. This is just another decision before you. As Sheryl Sandberg has said, “Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”

Obviously, conceiving naturally, at a relatively young age, is not a possibility for many women and it is wrong to assume that all women who start a family later in their lives intended and wanted to do just that. However, that does not mean that a first conception, early on in life, should not stop being painted as the ideal for which we should aim or at least, no worse a choice than any other.

Some well known female television presenters have recently come out in favour of starting a family earlier on in our lives, including Kirstie Allsopp and Kate Garraway. Allsop, a self-proclaimed passionate feminist, even went so far as to say,

“Women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35…I don’t have a girl, but if I did I’d be saying ‘Darling, do you know what? Don’t go to university. Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I’ll help you, let’s get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27.”

In a society which seems to be obsessed with denying reality (including the fact women’s bodies are geared towards pregnancy and motherhood), I am surprised that Allsopp has so far survived this interview unscathed, but she speaks a truth that many women should be hearing nowadays, especially those who would not naturally postpone a family were it not for social expectations. Yes, having a family is not for all women, and some will not want to marry or have children at all, but for young women who think this is part of their vocation, sooner is better than later to start (within reason, of course). Having children in your 20s may not be a reality for many, but it should be a reasonable hope for those young enough to make the choice.

Let’s never forget that apart from the minor details of the expense, the physical pain and the years spent earning money and sacrificing yourself for a company who likely don’t care that much for you, instead of spending time on your personal life, you are freezing your eggs in order to participate in a procedure which will involve the destruction of several of your children. This not modern living; it is modern hell and should be rejected by all sane human beings.

SPUC strongly encourages readers to write to Apple and Facebook to explain why their policy on egg freezing is so abhorrent

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