TOPIC GUIDE: Social egg freezing

"Social egg freezing empowers women"

PUBLISHED: 26 Aug 2016

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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INTRODUCTION

Female social egg freezing entered the news in October 2014, when Apple and Facebook announced that they would offer to pay for female employees to freeze their eggs and store them for later use, in a move which attracted a flurry of debate around the issue of female fertility choices in the 21st century [Ref: Guardian]. Apple explained that their decision was aimed at empowering women to plan ahead, declaring that: “We continue to expand our benefits for women…We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families” [Ref: Guardian]. In addition, this year a Japanese city confirmed they will cover the cost for female citizens to freeze their eggs as part of a three-year pilot project to tackle a declining population [Ref: BBC News], and with recent figures suggesting that the number of women in the UK opting to freeze and store their eggs has tripled in five years [Ref: Telegraph], discussion has centred on the ethics of the techniques associated with elective egg freezing. Amid headlines declaring that women should begin having children before they are thirty years old [Ref: Telegraph], this debate takes place within the context of the social and biological time pressures that women are under to conceive. For some proponents, social egg freezing is viewed as a boon for ambitious, career minded women who are not yet ready to have children, but may want to do so later in life. As one fertility expert remarks: “It is a new technology, and it creates options. And options are something every woman wants, and in this case, I think reasonably deserves.” [Ref: Slate] However, critics are less than convinced, with concerns about the price of the treatment, and efficacy of the technology which, many argue, offers women a false hope of conceiving later in life [Ref: The Times]. How should we view social egg freezing? Is it an empowering tool for women, giving them control of their reproductive futures? Or is it an expensive and inefficient technology, which fails to address the social aspects that affect female reproductive choices? Is social egg freezing a good thing?

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Social egg freezing DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is egg freezing?
Otherwise known as ‘oocycte cryopreservation’, egg freezing is a method used to preserve reproductive potential in women [Ref: Mayo Clinic]. It is done by harvesting eggs from a woman’s ovaries, freezing them unfertilised, and storing them for later use [Ref: Mayo Clinic]. Until recent years, it was a procedure used primarily for women undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy for illnesses like cancer, treatments which can affect fertility. But the debate has now moved on to the more controversial topic of women with no medical issues opting to freeze their eggs as a fertility choice – in essence, attempting to put motherhood ‘on ice’ until they decide they are ready. The development from medical to social egg freezing has created unease for some, with critics such as columnist Rosemary Goring concerned about the potentially profound effects on how we view pregnancy and parenthood, because: “Preventing pregnancy is one thing; timetabling birth as if it were a train, is entirely another.” [Ref: Herald] Additionally, questions still remain about the effectiveness of the procedure, with one opinion piece in The Times declaring that: “The central fact about oocyte cryopreservation as egg freezing is technically known, is that it almost never leads to a successful birth.” [Ref: The Times] Figures from the Human fertilisation and embryology authority (HFEA), suggest that only 1.7% of patients eggs thawed between 2008 and 2013 in the UK led to births, at a cost of up to £10,000 per treatment [Ref: The Times]. But others contest these statistics, claiming they are out of date, do not take into account newer techniques, and fail to acknowledge positive results from other countries [Ref: Huffington Post].

A triumph for female reproductive choice?
At the forefront of the arguments in support of social egg freezing is the concept of choice. For fertility expert Chavi Eve Karkowsky, the advances being made in the field of egg freezing can only be positive for women, allowing them to take control of their future fertility choices [Ref: Slate]. She observes that there are social pressures, such as finding the right partner, which women may wish to postpone until they are ready: “And egg freezing puts the whole process on ice until they can find a way to have the family they really want, with the partner they really want.” [Ref: Slate] Potentially the technology could also mean that women could concentrate on their careers in their 20’s and 30’s, in the knowledge that they may be able to conceive later in life. In this way, the US military, like Facebook and Apple, is considering offering egg freezing for female recruits in the hope of increasing retention rates, as: “Women who reach ten years of service…‘their peak years for starting a family’, have a retention rate that is 30 percent lower than their male counterparts.” [Ref: New York Times] Furthermore, the idea of the ‘female biological clock’, and the potential of egg freezing to assuage the time pressure that women are under to have children by a certain age, is also something the technology’s advocates point to. “Having the freedom to kick the proverbial can down the road is a freedom nature doesn’t afford women” [Ref: Huffington Post] remarks commentator Aidan Madigan-Curtis, but egg freezing offers this possibility. As with all fertility treatments though, egg freezing is not a fool proof method of conceiving later in life, but its supporters point to the rapid improvements in the technology through the process of ‘vitification’ which flash freezes the eggs, and which Dr Geeta Nargund suggests radically improves the chances of successfully thawing and using the eggs when required [Ref: Huffington Post]. Responding to claims from opponents that the procedure gives women false hope, she states that: “Scientific studies have shown that pregnancy rates and health outcomes following egg freezing are now comparable to those with IVF with fresh eggs.” [Ref: Huffington Post]

A technical solution to a social problem?
Critics of social egg freezing suggest that it may have potentially profound cultural consequences on wider societal norms and values. For one writer, egg freezing plays into a pervasive attitude that we can cheat nature, and subject it to our whims, arguing that: “You can’t help but wonder if social egg freezing is another brick in the wall of denial we are building around ourselves, against the approach of old age and what lies beyond.” [Ref: Herald] Moreover, whilst supporters claim that the reproductive choice that egg freezing offers women is positive, critics are concerned about the ramifications it may have. For instance, Christine Rosen observes that, “individual choices have broader consequences, and a society in which young women routinely freeze their eggs, could develop very different attitudes about children and the arc of a human life.” [Ref: Wall Street Journal] She concludes by saying that: “The danger lies not in a particular technology, but in how it might allow us to indulge our hubris and pretend that we and our families are not subject to the relentless march of time.” [Ref: Wall Street Journal] Similarly, columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett expresses concern that egg freezing may end up obscuring the real social reasons why women may feel the need to delay parenthood – such as insecure career prospects, unaffordable childcare costs, and skyrocketing property prices. She argues that: “It would do all women an injustice to neglect to challenge these barriers because of egg freezing technology’s seemingly miraculous allure.” [Ref: Guardian]. Academic Linda Scott agrees, and claims that instead of investing in, “expensive, intrusive, unnatural” solutions to parenthood, we should be looking at improving workplace conditions such as maternity leave, which would mean that women would not be forced to defer motherhood [Ref: World Economic Forum] Considering these points, should we celebrate social egg freezing as a means to empower women, or should we be cautious in welcoming its advent?

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

FOR

Why I froze my eggs

Jillian Dunham The Times 30 May 2015

In defence of egg freezing benefits

Chavi Eve Karkovsky Slate 16 October 2014

Why all women should freeze their eggs at 30

Kathryn Knight Daily Mail 19 May 2013

AGAINST

‘Social’ egg freezing is a hideous fertility gamble

Viv Groskop Guardian 9 February 2016

Oversold eggs

The Times 12 September 2015

The sobering facts about egg freezing that nobody’s talking about

Pamela Mohoney Tsigdinos Wired 24 October 2014

The ethics of egg freezing

Christine Rosen Wall Street Journal 3 May 2013

IN DEPTH

We need to talk about egg freezing

Eva Wiseman Guardian 7 February 2016

Fertility fog

Amy Klein Aeon 6 January 2015

KEY TERMS

Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.

BACKGROUNDERS

Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Turning back the biological clock comes at a price

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett Guardian 25 July 2016

Subsidised egg freezing isn’t the answer to Japan’s birth rate

Alex Petropanagos New Scientist 17 June 2016

New fertility options for female soldiers

Natalie Lampert Atlantic 29 February 2016

I took control of my biological clock at age 30

Aidan Madigan-Curtis Huffington Post 11 January 2016

What it’s like to freeze your eggs

Alice Mann Telegraph 10 October 2015

Egg freezing: can you really put babies on ice?

Ruth Wood Telegraph 7 September 2015

Why freezing eggs is not the answer

Linda Scott World Economic Forum 6 March 2015

Egg freezing deserves serious consideration

Dr Sonya Kashyap Huffington Post 21 December 2014

Social egg freezing: empowering but not an insurance policy

Gillian Lockwood Guardian 24 October 2014

The true impetus behind egg-freezing

Sally Satel Forbes 21 October 2014

Should you freeze your eggs?

Robin Marantz Henig Slate 30 September 2014

Fertility: will we ever win the egg race?

Laura Donnelly Telegraph 10 April 2011

Freezing and storing eggs

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority

ORGANISATIONS

Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.

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