Google and Facebook will pay for the process so female employees can delay childbirth and prolong their careers, but is it ethical, asks Sharon Ni Chonchuir.
IT’S easy to envy Google employees their free lunches, yoga classes and transport to and from work. The latest office perk is egg-freezing. Google and Facebook will pay for female employees to freeze their eggs, prolonging their fertility, while giving them the time to find the right partner, focus on their careers and choose when to have a family.
But is this progressive? Does it level the playing field for working men and women by beating the biological clock? And is egg-freezing a viable option for women who hope to have a family one day?
Egg-freezing, or cyro-preservation, is a recent medical development that was first offered to women prior to cancer treatment. In cases where such treatment required the removal of ovaries or potential damage to eggs, women could remove and freeze their eggs for future use. This service is now being offered to all women.
“It’s routinely offered to women with cancer to try to preserve their fertility in the face of deleterious therapies,” says Mr Declan Keane, from ReproMed, a Dublin fertility clinic that offers egg-freezing services.
“It’s now a viable option for single women, or women who wish to preserve their motherhood potential for reasons of social necessity.
“It allows them more of a choice in when they have a family.”
However, the statistics are not encouraging. In the Britain, where egg freezing has been available since the 1990s, the success rates have not been high. According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, 2,262 women had 20,465 eggs frozen from 1991 to 2012 and 21 babies were born as a result of 235 cycles during that time. 21 babies as a result of 235 cycles makes for a 9% success rate.
Mr Keane believes that women need to be aware of all the facts before they opt for egg freezing, including the chances for success. As with all fertility treatments, a woman’s age is a vital factor.
Google and Facebook are offering this service to single women under the age of 35 who are not yet ready for children but hope to have them in the future.
“Egg-freezing is only suitable and worthwhile for a younger group of women,” he says. “The older the woman, the less likely it is to preserve ‘quality’ eggs. Egg-freezing is not always successful in older women whose egg quality and quantity have likely decreased.”
Egg-freezing is not a fertility enhancement treatment. “It only preserves inherent fertility potential,” he says. “No one knows if they are fertile, despite the diagnostic fertility indicators, until they actually try to conceive. Some clinics may not make this clear to women. Even when you freeze your eggs, there is no guarantee that they will definitely result in a pregnancy when you return to use them.”
Helen Browne, from the National Infertility Support and Information Group, has mixed feelings regarding egg-freezing. “It’s wonderful for women who have to undergo cancer treatment, but it’s at such an early stage that I don’t know what to think about its future success,” she says. She worries that egg-freezing as a perk gives companies further control over employees’ lives. “Are they dictating to women that they should hold off on starting a family, so that they can get more work from them?” she asks. “I know they have crèche services and offer payments on getting pregnant. They are generous in lots of ways, but how would women feel if they accidentally got pregnant after the company had paid for this service? Or what would happen if they left the company? Would there be pressure on them to stay? Anything like this has to be a personal choice.”
Mr Keane doesn’t believe such ethical questions are relevant in this case. “These tech companies are empowering and supporting their employees by offering great maternity and paternity packages,” he says. “They are not trying to force you to put off parenting, as they support leave of absence, even for adoption. They are merely offering to support women to preserve their fertility potential, not in an effort to selfishly or deliberately delay motherhood.”
Browne remains to be convinced, but says if this is the case then it is a positive development. “Our support group has had women calling to tell us that it would have been wonderful to have had such a service available when they were in their early 30s,” she says.
“So many want to start a family, but haven’t met the right person. As long as egg-freezing is a personal choice, it’s a good thing. But women need to realise it’s not straightforward.
There are consequences to pumping your body with drugs when you may not need to and there is emotional fallout, too.” Both she and Mr Keane agree that it is good that egg-freezing is yet another option for women planning to have families in the future, but that it is important everyone realises it’s not a failsafe.
“I prefer to see young women and men having babies earlier, rather than relying on cyro-preserved eggs or sperm,” says Mr Keane. “But options are always a good thing, as long as the terms are explained clearly. Having eggs stored does not guarantee a viable pregnancy. It just means you have an insurance policy to call upon if you need to.”
Egg freezing is available in Ireland and costs €3,000 for the initial removal of the eggs. There is a further annual charge of €300 for storage.
Here’s how it works: Highly potent fertility drugs are administered over a two-week period in order to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple and healthy eggs. There is regular medical supervision during this time as well as ultrasounds to monitor the safe development of the eggs.
Steps are also taken to minimise side effects such as hot flushes, restlessness, headaches and irritation.
The eggs are collected in a surgical procedure which takes place under sedation and lasts for approximately 20 minutes. During the procedure, an embryologist inserts a fine needle into the ovaries via the vagina and lifts out the eggs.
The eggs are then rapidly frozen and stored. Theoretically, they can be stored for as long as the women wish.
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