In April, the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek blared: “Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career: A New Fertility Procedure Gives Women More Choices in the Quest to Have It All.” The New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic all wrote similar stories within a few months of Bloomberg’s cover, describing the new egg freezing empowerment narrative being sold to the female professional class. This week, NBC reported that Facebook and Apple have included egg freezing in their benefits packages as Silicon Valley’s latest high-powered perk. But behind the flashy pitch parties and promises of reproductive liberation is an industry targeted at the maternal anxieties of an increasingly wide swath of women navigating economic and social uncertainty.
Where previous generations often married and established a family by their mid-20s, professional women now often delay marriage and children until their 30s and later, and are rewarded for doing so. As the UVA National Marriage Project’s “Knot Yet” report indicated, “there is an $18,152 difference in annual personal income between college-educated women who marry before age twenty and those who wait until thirty or later.” Yet having spent their most opportune childbearing years cultivating a professional life, many of these women are faced with the stark reality that their chance at having and raising children is waning by the year. That’s where egg freezing pitch parties come in.
Robin Marantz Henig wrote of her experience at an event for the fertility company Eggbanxx that was sold as “an evening of ‘The Three F’s: Fun, Fertility, and Freezing’” for Slate. A “cocktail party at the trendy Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo [that] could have been a networking event for a hip New York investment bank or publishing house,” egg freezing was marketed as an easy means to empowerment. After all, who needs to settle down when you’ve got your future children–and reproductive capacity–frozen in time? Egg freezing appears to offer women the opportunity to turn back the hands of the biological clock.
But as W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, pointed out, the entire egg freezing impetus springs from a feeling that there is nowhere else to turn. “This [technology] will appeal to a very particular class of work-oriented women or women who feel that their prospects are bad,” Wilcox said. “There is a rhetoric of empowerment, but the reality is that they are a bunch of women who feel that they are not in power. In the end, this is a last resort.”
Sarah Elizabeth Richards, journalist and author of Motherhood, Rescheduled, says in her experience the desire to freeze eggs is indeed born from a sense of entrapment, but isn’t necessarily tied to careerism. According to Richards, the popular narrative that young professional women freeze their eggs in order to delay childbirth and develop themselves professionally or academically is off the mark.
“What I found is that after women froze their eggs, they focused more on dating and relationships,” Richards said. “Here’s what no one understands about egg freezing: it’s usually not used to delay children and do career things or pursue an education. It’s because they’re not in a relationship. These women reach a certain age (though the age is getting younger) and realize that their time is running out.”
The advent of a new flash-freezing technique called vitrification has given the fertility industry a product to offer women in that position. While egg freezing was traditionally a long-shot attempt to preserve the fertility of cancer patients, it has increasingly been used as a way to preserve the fertility of single women still searching for a mate as they approach 40. And if some in the industry get their way, Bloomberg reported, the market will continue to grow younger as “generous would-be grandparents will cover it as they would a first-mortgage down payment. ‘If you’re going to give your daughter a college graduation gift, what would you rather give her—a Honda or the chance to make a decision about when she’s ready to have a baby?’” one fertility doctor asked.
Wilcox fears the mainstreaming of egg freezing could undermine other efforts to make the workplace more family-friendly. “In some ways, we are moving into a world where our institutions and workplaces are becoming more accommodating to mothers,” he said. “This technology would remove that pressure. They wouldn’t have to be flexible and creative anymore. If young, professional, highly-educated young women continue to have children in their 20s, employers will have to adapt.”
The marginally increased reliability of vitrification has opened the door for some in the fertility industry to making their pitch for egg freezing as a normal life choice, even though the expensive procedure is almost never covered by insurance. To bridge that gap, Bloomberg reported, companies like Eggbanxx are starting to offer financing and payment plans to extend their services to more women, plans that include options with APRs of up to 35.36 percent according to Eggbanxx’s website.
David and Amber Lapp, researchers at the Institute for American Values and co-investigators of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, have also found evidence that motherhood anxiety is not simply restricted to its current professional-class market. Career women of the upper crust share this fundamental anxiety with middle- and lower-class working women. Amber Lapp spoke of a young woman who came to her with the idea of using a sperm donor: “When I spoke with her, she talked about how she felt she couldn’t trust men,” Lapp said. She continued, paraphrasing the young woman: “’Now I feel like I’m screwed. I’m scared. I don’t want to waste that much time and energy into something that’s not worth it.’”
The anxious impulse for motherhood was not stymied by an insufficient income among the working-class women the Lapps interviewed. “The odd thing was that these women, despite the expense, were considering using a sperm donor even though they could barely afford their housing,” Lapp said. “The desire for children is that strong.”
Expanded egg freezing may set women up for even more disappointment, however, as the new vitrification procedures rarely live up to how they are hyped. While Eggbanxx’s representatives confidently declared that women can expect near-90 percent success rates after three cycles, a recent peer-reviewed study of egg freezing papers concluded that even women who froze their eggs at age 25 only obtained live births 31.5 percent of the time.
While the egg freezing industry will likely continue to grow, the social and economic struggles impeding marriage and motherhood remain resistant to a technological solution.
Sarah Albers is a TAC editorial assistant.