Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is the freezer really women’s liberator? Part I: The hype: The freezer can keep our dreams alive. Right?

I was excited when my phone rang. My college friend Michelle always cheers me up. In my mind, this woman is living a life worthy of envy. She landed her dream job as an investment banker at one of the world’s most prestigious firms. She owns an impeccably decorated condo in New York, a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and handbags, drives a fancy German sports car, and takes regular vacations to exotic locations. She’s an amazing cook, runs marathons, volunteers for two different charities, and has a very active social life. She is brilliant, ambitious, vibrant, gregarious, and incredibly kind. She is the type of human being that I would want my own daughter to emulate. My hypothetical daughter, that is. And that brings me to the subject of Michelle’s call:
Michelle: Should I go to an egg-freezing party?
Heather: Michelle! You can’t be serious?
Michelle: My good friend Veronica just froze her eggs and she said it wasn’t that bad. I have been so focused on my career that I let my biological clock expire. I am 35 and single; I am running out of options! You must be thinking about this too?
She’s right. I think about it a lot. I’m not obsessive, yet, but it is a major concern. Women’s fertility window is limited. We are born with all the eggs we’ll ever have. We are most fertile in our early-to- mid- twenties, then our chances of getting pregnant drop dramatically in our early thirties, and by the time we reach forty our fertility rate is just 3%.

So, Michelle’s story is all too common. It’s a story I share. As we all have tried to take advantage of the opportunities to attend college and have a career that our grandparents, and maybe even our own parents, didn’t have, we are encountering a problem. As we work hard to make a name for ourselves in the workplace, our biological clocks are not waiting for us. Thus, an advancement in science like egg freezing is big news.

Egg freezing has been widely covered in the media. In March 2013 Glamour magazine ran a story  titled “Now That Everyone’s Freezing Their Eggs…Should You? The author described how with celebrities like Kim Kardashian undergoing egg-freezing, she decided it was time to get on board. Similarly, in June 2013 Cosmopolitan headlined an article asking “Freezing Your Eggs—Is This What We’re all doing Now?” The piece was written by Sarah Elizabeth Richards, an outspoken advocate for egg freezing whose op-eds urging women to freeze their eggs have run in the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Richards has detailed how between the ages of 36-38 she spent $50,000 of her savings to freeze 70 eggs in the hope that they will help her have a family once she is ready. 

An entire industry has arisen around the practice. EggBanxx formed in February 2014, claiming to be “the first national network of doctors who offer egg freezing for fertility preservation and makes egg freezing affordable with easy, convenient financing.” Eggbaxx is the company that is hosting the egg-freezing cocktail party by friend Michelle was invited to. EggBanxx has been featured in Time, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, and even the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Another popular website, Eggsurance, was founded by Brigitte Adams after she attempted to freeze her eggs at age 38 and was frustrated about the lack of information. Eggsurance claims to offer “no nonsense egg freezing information and community in one place” and it too has received its fair share of press attention.

By and large the narrative about egg freezing has been similar and positive: freeze your eggs in order to extend your biological clock, give yourself peace of mind, and free your career. Sarah Richards called egg freezing “the best investment [she] ever made.” I have to admit, egg freezing could be a game changer. As Richards put it,
Amid all the talk about women ‘leaning in’ and ‘having it all,’ the conversation has left out perhaps the most powerful gender equalizer of all—the ability to control when we have children.
For all our discussion about gender equality in the workplace, the reality is that women’s fertility declines with age and thus women have to consider child-bearing during their peak career building years. Thus, on the one hand, allowing women to freeze their biological clock could lead to real gender equality in the workplace by allowing women to focus solely on their career building in their twenties and thirties, with eggs in the freezer for when their career is established, their income is sufficient, and they have found a mate. On the other hand, egg freezing encourages women to put their careers above childbearing when the science doesn’t support that there will be a high likelihood of success with such a process. 

The truth is that egg freezing technology is relatively new and is not endorsed for women who wish to delay their fertility for social or career reasons because the long terms effects and success are unknown. In Part II of this series I will explore the science, cost and statistics behind egg freezing to help us understand whether egg freezing is really the great equalizer it appears to be. As I told my friend Michelle, I see the allure, and I completely understand why a single woman in her mid-thirties might consider it, but the jury is still out on whether it’s safe and effective in the long run.

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