April 9, 2013
Egg freezing is the newest reproductive technology: a recently perfected form of flash-freezing that allows human eggs to be successfully stored in egg banks. Only commercially available in American IVF clinics since October 2012, when the “experimental” label was lifted, egg freezing is being heralded as a “revolution in the way women age,” a “reproductive backstop,” a “fertility insurance policy,” an “egg savings account” and in particular, a way for ambitious career women to postpone motherhood until they are ready.
With egg freezing, women can use their own banked eggs later in life to effectively rewind their biological clock, becoming mothers in their 40s, 50s and beyond. It’s a technological game changer that just might allow women to defy the notion that they can’t have it all.
Marcia C. Inhorn
Marcia C. Inhorn
Trying to balance career and family is difficult for many professional women. I am one of those educated career-driven women who completed my Ph.D., found a good husband and landed my first tenure-track job at a major public university by 35.
But as my husband sometimes reminds me, I took only a single day of vacation during my first year on the job. I worked relentlessly to prepare lectures for four courses, to convert my dissertation into the mandatory book manuscript for tenure, and to advise the throngs of students coming to my office hours.
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At the same time, I wanted to have children. I had already waited for two years after marriage before going off oral contraception. I realized that the time was not exactly right to have children. But, at age 35, I felt that my chances to have children were rapidly slipping away. Given that my own research focused on infertility and IVF, I knew a woman’s fertility declines rapidly at age 35 and becomes negligible by age 40.
Those years between age 35 and 40 were difficult ones for me. My dual desires to establish myself in my career and to become a mother were literally colliding.
In the midst of my demanding job as a tenure-track professor, I became pregnant naturally, but then had to take medical leave for a rare pregnancy complication, which ended in the stillbirth of twin daughters. My next pregnancy ended in miscarriage. At age 37, I finally delivered my first living child, a son named Carl. At age 39, still hoping to have a second child, I was warned by an Egyptian IVF colleague to “yallah”– get going — before it was too late. Against the odds, I had my second child a year later, a daughter, Justine, without IVF assistance.
My children, who are teenagers now, are the truest joy of my life. But I know I am one of the lucky women. Many of my female colleagues who wanted children were not able to have them. Data show that this “fertility penalty” for highly educated, professional women is real.
In America, 43% of corporate professional women between the ages of 33 and 46 are childless. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, which has the highest European age at first birth (at nearly 30), almost a third of women with college degrees remained childless at the end of their childbearing years, according to one study.
To be sure, egg freezing is not an ideal choice. It involves half an IVF cycle, is costly (as much as $18,000 in the United States), and should ideally be undertaken when a woman is in her 20s or early 30s, before her eggs have begun to age significantly. The good news is that frozen eggs have a high survival rate, and no increased risk of genetic defects among frozen-egg offspring have been reported thus far.
However, feminists like me worry about the potential backlash that may accompany the use of this technology. For example, employers may come to expect women to postpone childbearing through egg freezing. Women may be pushed into a burdensome and costly medical procedure that cannot provide guaranteed future fertility outcomes. Also, an increased age difference between mothers and their children may lead to poorer, less energetic parenting, as well as an increased likelihood that children will lose their mothers early on.
Moreover, promoting egg freezing as a quick-fix technological solution does not solve the unfavorable employment policies that cause women to lean out of their careers.
There are no easy answers to these issues, which so many career women face. Nonetheless, the recent availability of egg freezing does provide one more viable option for talented women who want to become future leaders and future moms.
My female graduate students often ask me for advice on how to become a successful professor, while also having kids. I usually tell them to look for a supportive partner who has a nontraditional, flexible career path. But now I am going to add: Consider freezing your eggs as you approach your mid-30s, so you can choose when to become a mother.