How Facebook and Apple's Egg-Freezing Policies Hurt Working Women

When an employer offers to freeze your eggs, see it as a Trojan horse, not a gift.

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Last week, the tech industry launched a salvo in response to widespread criticism about the lack of gender diversity within its ranks: freeze your eggs at no expense. See it as a bonus! Tech giants Facebook and Apple announced that they will provide female employees the opportunity to cryopreserve (freeze) their eggs. Facebook has already started this program and Apple will soon implement its program in January 2015. Apple informed NBC that it will cover the full costs of cryopreservation services and Facebook will reimburse female employees up to $20,000.

To be fair, the tech industry isn’t the first to extend these services, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase already offer similar programs to female employees. Some commentators laude these ova cryopreservation programs as progressive equalizers, granting women even greater reproductive “choice” in family planning. As one columnist argues, “egg freezing is a great equalizer.” In other words, even women are framing this issue as a “nothing to lose” option, especially “if your boss is offering it up to you for free.”

In reality, such policies do little to confront the real problems of working women who want to have children. They merely mask them.

The idea behind these programs is that bright young women will be able to place their fertility (and motherhood) on hold while devoting themselves to the workplace. The programs are seen as win-win, because young women of reproductive age can advance their careers without the messy problems of pregnancy and parenting and companies can maximize that employee devotion and energy to the benefit of the companies and their clientele. What could be wrong? A lot, it turns out.

First of all, reproductive biotechnology is not without its pitfalls and problems. Hyperstimulation of the ovaries (a process necessary to generate sufficient ova to freeze) requires aggressive hormone therapy, using drugs not approved by the FDA for that purpose. These drugs trigger women’s bodies to dramatically produce dozens of ova in one month rather than the normal one or two. Some women who have undergone this treatment claim to produce as many as four dozen ova in one month after receiving these hormone cocktails.

The lure of cryopreservation as a technology that affords choice can blind women and couples to the less desirable outcomes and unanticipated economic and emotional strains associated with this technology and later attempts to become pregnant. Health risks such as punctured ovaries and organs (from egg retrieval, which requires a long needle inserted into the ovary), abdominal bleeding, peritonitis, pelvic abscesses, ovarian torsion, and infertility are associated with cryopreservation.

One problem is that too few studies track women who hyperstimulate their ovaries. The health risks illustrated in documentaries and the nightly news are quite horrific. The documentary Eggsploitation highlights the dramatic costs of ovarian stimulation; it documented a woman who died, another who suffered a stroke, and yet another who experienced bouts of cancer. Each had compounding medical injuries. Like the Facebook and Apple employees, these are highly educated women who were in their 20s. Their personal stories raise important questions.

Liz Tilberis, a popular magazine editor, described her fertility treatments as “ovary blasting.” She later died. Even if women successfully freeze their eggs, it turns out that the invitro fertilization procedure required later has nearly a 70% failure rate according to the CDC. Freezing ova does not increase the probability of pregnancy, nor does it preserve fertility. After age 35, fertility declines whether using one’s own eggs or someone else’s. The older the woman, the slimmer the chances that she will ever become pregnant.

The second glaring problem with programs like those of Apple and Facebook is that in addition to being potentially problematic for women's bodies, they do little for women as workers. Rather than being an “equalizer” in the workplace or unencumbered gifts, these programs are more like Trojan horses. Although cryopreservation programs appear to offer women more choice in family planning, such proposals may cover soft forms of discrimination in the workplace. They place the burden of delayed parenthood on women under the guise of supporting them. Rather than progressive, such policies can be quite regressive.  

The glow about cryopreservation programs ignores pregnancy and motherhood discrimination and the unique career challenges of younger women. Pregnancy and motherhood coercion are “soft,” but nevertheless real, forms of discrimination that create double binds for women who believe they must choose between the pursuit of careers and early motherhood. These young women receive the message that they will benefit if they delay pregnancy and can increase their chances of fair opportunity at law firms, businesses, tech giants, or university posts so long as they conform to the family planning agenda at the workplace.

Existing public policy ignores this type of sex discrimination and even accommodates it by promoting assisted reproductive technology (ART) as the solution to early career challenges. Yet reliance on ART to resolve this larger public policy issue detracts from addressing pregnancy and motherhood discrimination in the workplace and levies the burden on women to use biotechnology to resolve inequitable treatment in employment settings.  

Egg-freezing will not solve the problems of sexism, unequal pay, lack of paid family leave, unaffordable childcare, and the pervasive culture in American companies in which the balance between motherhood and work is nearly impossible to achieve.

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is Chancellor's Professor of Law and Director at the Center for Biotechnology & Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine School of Law. [email protected]