I’m at a coffee shop in New Orleans. Next to me, a table of women discuss business and funding solutions. Ten feet away, my thirty-something barista chats with a male customer about video game strategies. In the bathroom is a large fish bowl of free condoms in a variety of colors. On the bulletin board is an ad soliciting full-time activists: “Oppose attacks on healthcare access. Expand reproductive rights. Keep birth control affordable.”
Contraception is touted as a necessity for my demographic, but I came to this coffee shop to write about how more and more women are resorting to reproductive technologies because of the difficulty they face in trying to start a family before menopause. Women now pay tens of thousands of dollars to inject themselves with hormones in a procedure called oocyte cryopreservation, or “egg freezing,” so that they might be able to have biological children when they are forty, forty-five, or fifty-plus years old.
In April, a feature story titled “Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career” made the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek. “Not since the birth control pill has a medical technology had such potential to change family and career planning,” wrote author Emma Rosenblum. She continues:
Imagine a world in which life isn’t dictated by a biological clock. If a twenty-five-year-old banks her eggs and, at thirty-five, is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby. She can also hold out for the man or woman of her dreams. Doctors hope that within the next thirty years the procedure will become a routine part of women’s health, and generous would-be grandparents will cover it as they would a first-mortgage down payment.
Rosenblum is right when she asserts that dramatic changes in family and career planning were brought on by the pill. But are women really happier now because of them?
The new rules of mating
Economics professor, Harvard alum, and mother, Dr. Catherine Pakaluk, co-authored a paper titled “The New Battle of the Sexes: A 2 x 2 Theory of the Happiness Gender Gap.” In her report she utilizes game theory to comment on recent research around the paradox of declining female happiness, suggesting that the pill has disadvantaged women in the mating game.
Pakaluk observes that men desire sex much more than women, while women have a much stronger desire for children. Sure, women want sex too, and men want babies, but whether due to socialization or biology, the reality is that women prioritize creating a family more often than men, and often earlier. In her report, she writes, “Women are at risk of being alienated from their maximum [happiness] payoffs in the presence of any technology which makes it easier to ‘un-bundle’ the joint-production of sex and children . . .”
When sex and procreation were tightly connected pre-pill, men usually had to yield to female sexual preferences, at least going through the motions of commitment in order to find a willing partner. What the pill has ultimately achieved is a lowering of the price of sex to the point that men barely need to buy women dinner for access. Sex, which women used to leverage in pursuit of family and children, is no longer scarce.
Today, women must navigate an environment where they cannot risk being vulnerable (an inherent condition of motherhood) because they lack the assurance that their partners, family, or community will be there to support them.
In such a climate, it does seem logical for women to postpone motherhood until they are able to perform (or hire someone else to perform) all the roles required to raise healthy, happy children. The drive to succeed exhibited by many career women is not solely about making their parents proud and proving how smart they are. In many cases, women want professional success so that their standard of living and the opportunities for their children are not contingent on the whims of others—whether fathers, extended family, or the community at large are willing to provide.
The new face of motherhood
Today, one-third of the sperm bank clientele is made up of single women. These “single mothers by choice” are not the empowered voices you might expect. As one woman put it, “You feel a little bit resentful, like, gosh, how did I get here? . . . Right up until I ordered the sperm and made the doctor’s appointment, I was filled with anxiety.”
The feelings of the women undertaking egg freezing are not the only concern. There are also considerations about what children need. Besides the many health benefits provided by developing in the womb of a relatively younger and healthier mother, children benefit in one simple way when their mothers bear them sooner rather than later: they are dramatically less likely to be prematurely orphaned.
Sue Tollefsen, Britain’s oldest first-time mother, became world famous when she gave birth to her daughter in 2008 via donor eggs. Today, she publicly admits to having made a mistake.
“I was 57 when I had Freya, but I felt very energetic and able to cope. I thought I would feel fit and healthy forever,” she says. But Ms. Tollefsen, now a single mother, developed a severe blood infection in 2013 that left her unable to care for her young daughter for weeks. Today, it’s doubtful that she will live long enough to see Freya graduate.
Children born to older parents may reach adulthood before serious illness or death threatens the life of a parent, but they are typically forced to take on elder-care responsibilities during their twenties and thirties—a time typically consumed by the difficult work of family and career development. Though their parents were required to navigate work and children, those born to older parents must find a way to balance work, children, and senior care.
Promise vs. reality
There are no long-term studies on the health effects of the drugs and hormones required for egg retrieval according to Susan K. Flinn of National Women’s Health Network. Lupron, the most popular drug used for IVF and egg retrieval procedures, was never approved by the FDA for fertility use. And the pharmaceutical manufacturer of Lupron is responsible for the largest Medicare fraud in history, including offering criminal kickbacks to doctors who prescribed their patients the drug. Lupron Victims Hub claims thousands of people have demanded research of the drug, citing an exhaustive list of health consequences. There is speculation of corruption in the lack of research.
Still, proponents of the technology promise that preserving eggs will increase female happiness by rendering the biological clock irrelevant, putting men and women on equal footing when it comes to reproductive biology.
But it may be safer to suggest that what women really want is not a series of ten-thousand dollar hormonal injections that will allow them to have children just in time for their chemo treatments and hip replacements. Is this, along with an 80-hour work week, what they mean by “having it all”?
What most women want is support that will allow them to have children during their natural fertility window. What women need are strong relationships—a prerequisite for the vulnerability that having a child will require.
Egg freezing is ultimately just a small bandage on a deep wound, and it may prove to be a false hero in an ongoing battle.