Egg Freezing-Now a Job Perk?
Big companies, such as Apple and Facebook, have recently announced that their female employees would be offered free “egg freezing.” The idea behind the process of egg freezing, or oocyte cryopreservation, is that a woman who is not ready to have children may freeze her eggs and later re-implant them in her uterus via an in vitro-fertilization process when she is ready for children. Freezing eggs puts a halt on their biological activity and, literally, ‘freezes them in time.’
A woman’s eggs stay with her from pre-birth until menopause, so just like we get older, so do our eggs. Our eggs don’t gray and wrinkle, but they certainly age; and the aging process may cause serious issues in the chromosomes of the eggs. You have probably heard that the risk for Down syndrome (a condition caused by having an extra chromosome 21) is increased in older moms. That is because their older eggs are more prone to having errors in meiosis, the process of chromosome division.
The cost of egg freezing nears $10,000 for every round, plus $500 or more annually for storage. It seems like these large companies are finding that losing their valuable employees to maternity leave and family time is detrimental, and that women should feel encouraged to plan out the lives they want if they want to get set on their careers first. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of buzz around these announcements from Apple and Facebook, ranging from full support to skepticism of using egg freezing for non-medical purposes (one particular piece I enjoyed reading was an op-ed in the New York Times from a few weeks ago).
While career building may be a valid motive to freeze eggs, there are other reasons a woman may consider this process. I have been asked whether egg freezing would be a good option from some women who have not yet met the man with whom they want to build a family, in case they do not get a chance to start their family until they are older. There are also medical reasons a woman may decide to freeze her eggs. For example, women who undergo cancer treatment which may be toxic to their eggs may decide to preserve their eggs before they begin their therapy. In addition, women facing certain genetic conditions that lead to premature failure of ovarian function may also choose to freeze their eggs–some examples include those with Turner syndrome or fragile X premutation carriers. In addition, women who are BRCA carriers may opt to remove their ovaries to reduce their risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, but may not be ready to have children. These women could freeze their eggs for a later pregnancy.
Of course I also need to mention that older women who are having babies (whether or not the eggs have been cryopreserved) tend to have older spouses. Because of the large number of cell divisions in spermatogenesis, the process of sperm development, the mutation rate in certain genes is higher in men than women, and increases with age. So we are finding that certain genetic diseases are more common in babies with older dads as well. Such diseases include certain forms of dwarfism, some types of craniofacial disorders, and some more complex diseases such as autism, schizophrenia and cancers.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine does not recommend the use of egg freezing for purposes of delaying childbearing, since data on safety, the efficacy, and the cost-effectiveness, and emotional risks are insufficient. They say that “marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing.” Nevertheless, egg freezing for career reasons is a reality. But should it be?