Freezing your eggs may not be something you've considered (yet). For one thing, it's wildly expensive — $10,000 per egg-removal round plus $500 per year for storage. For another thing, menopause might seem to you like a distant speck on the horizon. But, what if your employer offered you the procedure for free?
Yesterday, NBC broke the news that tech giants Apple and Facebook will now cover the cost of egg-freezing procedures for their employees — just another one of their health-care benefits. Facebook employees can already access this coverage, while Apple employees will be able to take advantage of it starting in 2015. Skeptics immediately leapt to decry the move as putting pressure on female employees to dedicate their fertile years to work and nothing but work. Critics see this freeze-for-free option as indication that Apple's and Facebook's company cultures value employees' productivity more highly than their quality of life. Meanwhile, we're asking why these companies' willingness to pay for an important reproductive option for all female employees is inherently a Bad Thing. We only wish more women — not just members of the tech elite — had this choice.
In 2012, women's median age at the time of first marriage was 26.6 — up from 22 in 1980. Women's median age at the time of first childbirth jumped from 22.6 to 25.3 between 1980 and 2012 (here, it's important to note that today, 48% of all births in the U.S. are to unmarried mothers, and the average married woman waits two years or more after getting married to have her first child).
The ages at which women are first marrying and having children, then, are rising, while ages at which women are most fertile are (obviously) not; women increasingly desire to start families later than their reproductive systems might easily allow, and that's not a cultural shift we can blame on individual companies. Should we think critically about a culture that prioritizes career advancement and earnings over family? Absolutely. But, that's not the same thing as criticizing the expansion of health-care options.
Jaime Knopman, M.D., infertility specialist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, confirms that the age at which women are pursuing egg-freezing is decreasing. At first, "the women doing it were in their 40s," Dr. Knopman explains. Recently, however, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine removed the "experimental" label from egg-freezing. "As it becomes more mainstream...we’ve started to see the age drop, and I would say the average age is definitely more like 37 or 38 now," Dr. Knopman adds.
She also observes that many women are unaware of how their fertility declines over time. "We’re born with all the eggs we’ll ever have," she explains, "and we start to lose eggs when we’re only 20 weeks old, inside of our mother's uterus… Egg numbers decline even as early as 32, and at the age of 37/38 is another sharp cutoff, and then after 40 it's a really steep slope. So, it starts much younger than I think most people know." And, age isn't the only thing with an impact on woman's fertility: For women diagnosed with cancer who are planning to undergo surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, egg-freezing may be their only hope of one day having biological children.
Dr. Knopman applauds expanded coverage of egg-freezing and predicts it will encourage even younger women to pursue the procedure. "I think it's awesome," she says. "The thing is, when we’re in our young 30s, we often don’t have the financial resources yet to undertake this. I think [egg-freezing coverage] will give women an opportunity." Financial ability, of course, applies not only to deciding when to freeze one's eggs, but also to deciding when to have children. Many individuals and couples base family planning on their financial situations; an older woman is likely to be making more than a younger woman and thus be better financially equipped to raise a child. Have we mentioned that an American kid now costs a whopping $245,340 before he or she even turns 18? (College sold separately.)
NBC also notes that egg-freezing could be instrumental in "leveling the playing field" between women and men, citing the increased freedom it affords women in making life decisions "without the crushing pressure of a ticking biological clock." What has not been discussed is egg-freezing's potential to level the playing field between women and other women. Those who can afford to freeze their eggs — typically those in the upper ranks of a company — will do so out-of-pocket if they decide it's the best option for them. But, it's likely that not every female employee at Apple or Facebook has this financial ability. When these companies make the egg-freezing choice (emphasis on "choice" and all of the personal agency that word implies) available to all of their female employees, they are supporting all employees' ability to determine the course of their own lives. There's a difference between paying someone to freeze her eggs and covering the cost of egg-freezing should that person choose to do it. Women at Facebook and Apple won't make money from their employees' new policies; they just won't lose $10,000+ — or be forced to forego a procedure they've deemed is right for them.
Some have argued that if this option becomes readily available to women, those who choose to have kids early in their careers will be discriminated against in favor of those who delay childbirth via science. Were Facebook or Apple to begin discriminating against young mothers as a result of this new health-care benefit, then yes — we'd have a problem. But, to predict this outcome is to jump to conclusions. Both of these companies have solid track records of supporting and respecting new parents; at Facebook, both new mothers and new fathers receive up to four months of paid leave. Apple, meanwhile, guarantees expectant mothers four weeks of leave before childbirth and 14 weeks after (fathers receive six weeks). Compare that with the scores of companies that only offer employees unpaid prenatal and maternity leave; the U.S. is notoriously the only developed country not to guarantee paid maternity leave. Seems to us that our shoddy national performance in caring for women when they do bear children is where we should be directing our ire.