The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Freezing Eggs, Indulging in Utopian Fantasies

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

A growing number of women in wealthy countries believe that medical technology will allow them to fulfill their career ambitions while postponing childbirth. The latest technology inspiring hope is that of freezing eggs. This technology, so its advocates assert, allows young women to freeze their eggs while still fertile, so freeing them to complete their education and get well-launched in their careers before bearing children. But in a recently published commentary, legal scholars from the University of Minnesota and George Washington University voice serious doubts as to whether this new technology will deliver the hoped-for benefits, while also expressing deep concerns about its social effects even if it does deliver some of those benefits.  

Writing in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, the authors of the new commentary begin by confronting the reasons that “the existing world of work and women’s biology are on a collision course.” To succeed in prestigious and highly remunerative careers, women typically must “wait to have children” while they “invest in themselves” through education and early-career advancement. But these women must realize that “every year [they] delay beyond their late twenties . . . increases the risk of infertility.”  

Enter the technology that allows women to freeze their eggs. This technology, the legal scholars remark, fosters “the illusion of empowering women so that they can invest in their careers without worrying about the biological clock. For the first time, women can lead the same lives as men” (emphasis added). So powerful has this illusion grown that Facebook, Apple, and other companies now subsidize egg-freezing for female employees. But the legal scholars see some potential “pitfalls” inherent in this new technology.  

First, the scholars remind their readers that this new technology is “largely untested. We don’t know what the long-term risks are of exposing women to the hormones necessary to produce the eggs, and there’s no guarantee that thawed eggs will result in a pregnancy.”  

Even if the new technology does work, the legal scholars doubt that it will deliver all the benefits ambitious women hope for. “The model for the most competitive forms of employment is a male one,” they explain, because this model “involves completing education, proving one’s worth during the peak childbearing years (the late twenties through the early forties), and awarding more perks and greater employment flexibility for the successful [ones] who earn tenure, make partner, or rise in the executive ranks.” Obviously, “the model is one that corresponds to male reproductive patterns.”  

Perhaps, the commentators acknowledge, “egg freezing may make it possible for women to come closer to a male lifestyle” by allowing them—like men—“to devote their twenties and early thirties to proving themselves in the workplace, and defer childbearing until after they reach more secure and valued positions likely to provide paid family leave, greater flexibility in structuring hours, and enough income to afford high-quality child care and other domestic help.” However, the Minnesota and George Washington scholars still “doubt . . . that egg freezing will usher in a new era of equality between men and women.” After all, because “most sectors of the economy experience too much competition to allow [even] their senior employees to relax,” the commentators believe that “the ticking of the biological clock, even if the alarm is moved into the forties or fifties, will still disproportionately affect women’s careers.”

“A few more women, with eggs safely in the freezer, may stay in the hunt for the top jobs a bit longer,” the commentators remark, “but nothing suggests that these women will then find an ideal time to have children later.”

The likely effect of egg-freezing that the commentators are most sure of is a malign one: “Egg freezing is almost certain to increase societal stratification,” creating a society in which “class-based inequality among children is . . . likely to grow.” But more than economics is at stake here, for this social stratification will grow out of “diverging social systems in which different groups do not share common assumptions about child rearing.”  

Already, the commentators see considerable divergence in the United States between the “the reproductive patterns of the elite and the rest of society.” This divergence manifests itself in a number of ways. The legal scholars note that the age at which economically elite women give birth to a first child “has steadily increased and now exceeds 30,” while the average age at which women who have not graduated from college give birth for the first time—which did increase between 1970 and 1990—has “leveled off since.” Further divergence in family life is evident in the way that the marriage rate has remained stable among women in the 10% of America enjoying the highest incomes—has even risen a bit among those in the top 5%—but has declined among women in less favorable economic circumstances.  

This diverging marital pattern predicts a third way that the reproductive pattern of America’s elite women already differs from that of less favorably situation women: “[C]ollege graduates continue to give birth overwhelmingly within marriage while non-marital births are becoming the norm for others.” More specifically, the commentators note that in 2011, less than one-tenth of babies born to women who had graduated from college were out of wedlock, compared to more than four-tenths of the babies born to women who attended college but did not graduate and more than half of the babies born to women who never attended college.

But the divergence that troubles the commentators especially shows up in the willingness to have children at all. “While intended pregnancies have declined substantially for elite women,” they write, “they have increased since the 1990s for poorer women. These women see little reason to defer childbearing.” On the other hand, among the affluent elite, the commentators predict that despite the hopes elite women invest in egg freezing, “a more general delay in the age of reproduction is likely to produce greater infertility.”

As part of a life script “effectively beyond the reach of increasing portions of the population,” the technology of “egg freezing is likely to increase existing class stratification in an increasingly unequal economic system.” The commentators go so far as to warn that “egg freezing could become another luxury good associated with the rise of the plutonomy.”

As the commentators speculate on what that luxury good might come to look like, they contemplate some truly disturbing trends, trends of the sort that carry society closer to the dystopian worlds of Brave New World and Gattaca. The commentators suggest that affluent women who have delayed childbearing may end up using eggs frozen by some other woman at a clinic that may have paid her up to $10,000 to serve as an egg donor. But the availability of donor eggs may make elite women “pickier about the eggs they are willing to use,” so putting the affluent segment of society on “the cusp of an era in which genetic selection becomes an ever more commonplace as part of reproduction.” As part of the process of genetic selection, affluent elite women may begin shopping around in a “highly differentiated gamete market, with prices varying by race and by SAT scores, [which] raises the specter of genetic engineering.”  

Clearly unsettled by the thought of this specter, the commentators conclude in a monitory tone, suggesting that “the changes that accompany [egg-freezing] will ultimately be farther reaching, harder to predict, and ultimately disappointing for reasons that go beyond today’s measures of safety and efficacy.” They remind readers that, after all, “it is really hard to improve on nature.”

Despite their highly laudable recognition of the beneficence of natural reproduction, however, the commentators harbor a wish (which they recognize as unrealistic) that they could be “philosopher queens . . . [who could] wave . . . magic wands and create environments more supportive of child rearing for women (and men) in their twenties,” environments in which young women would “be able to combine children with employment.”  

Truly wise philosopher queens would stop fantasizing about impossible strategies that might allow women to pursue essentially male career paths while still having children. It is not magic wands but traditional wisdom—the kind that once sustained a family wage for a father-breadwinner—that will make home-based motherhood not something technologically shoehorned into a life focused primarily on a career but rather a cherished life vocation.   

(June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, “Commentary,” Journal of Law and Bioscience 2.1 [2015]: 105-11.)