Last week, the internet’s collective ovaries exploded when Apple joined Facebook in announcing that it would now be covering elective egg freezing as part of its benefits package. The practice, Apple announced, in a slightly tone deaf press release, was intended to “empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.”
Perhaps it was this “best work of their lives” phrasing, which made the company’s female employees sound like shiny, worker-automatons, that flipped the freak-out switch. Maybe it was simply the public statements about what still sounds like a futuristic procedure: egg freezing. Whatever the reason, critics, many of them very smart critics, erupted in a wave of surprisingly angry response.
Egg freezing benefits encourage women to delay childbearing and devote peak familial years to economic and professional ambition, said some. What we need is not just fertility technology but daycare, said others. These kinds of “corporate perks” are just part of a scheme to keep women (and men) laboring endlessly, and are symptomatic of a broken work culture that leaves us no time for leisure, family, or personal thriving. This is another attempt by the female-unfriendly tech industry to trick women into giving the best parts of their lives to it. Egg freezing is an unproven new technology, with comparatively low success rates. Egg freezing, which involves hormone shots and chemicals used in flash-freezing process, may have long term side-effects that we don’t yet know about. It’s dangerous to convince young healthy women that their window of fertility is flexible.
Many of these arguments are very, very sound. But then again, the soundest of them could be made any day, in response to nearly any event.
Did the sun rise this morning? Right: We need more federally mandated paid parental leave and subsidized daycare policies. Did you or someone in your family or social circle feel compelled to respond to a work email that arrived after 8 p.m.? Yes, that’s because we have an oppressive work culture that is not healthy and is slowly destroying us. Did you eat a gluten-free muffin spread with butter made from a cow that may have been given rBST and heavy doses of antibiotics on your way to a job that is not going to pay for a day of parental leave and at which you probably get paid less than your male colleague? Oh my god, we need better studies on the long-term effects of injecting synthetic hormones and antibiotics into our food and also on what happens when we remove all the gluten from foods in which gluten is supposed to occur in nature. Also: Did I mention equal wage protection?
What was perplexing about this collective crisis was that it was prompted simply by a move by two major tech companies to add another family-making option to the roster of parental paths that they are willing to help finance. Apple HR is not, in fact, greeting new employees with a stun-gun, hormone shot, and an egg harvester. They are simply adding egg freezing to the list of family-related costs—including adoption fees, IVF, sperm retrieval—that these companies will now be willing to help employees pay for.
Yes, it is true that by even offering to cover a technology that is designed, in part, to help women delay childbearing, these corporations might be giving a subtle wink-wink, nudge-nudge message that they might prefer it if female employees didn’t have babies just right now, or next week, or next year, but … maybe some other time. Yet it is also true that most workplaces in America send less subtle wink-wink, nudge-nudge messages that maybe they would prefer it if their employees didn’t have babies: In the form of paychecks that stop arriving in the weeks and months after a baby is born.
At least the companies currently in question do offer good leave policies. Facebook pays for 18 weeks of leave for birth and non-birth parents of every gender in addition to paying $4,000 to new parents—an incentive that might irritate me if I were a child-free Facebook employee. Apple announced earlier this month that they were overhauling their parental leave policy and will now pay for up to four weeks before birth, and 14 weeks after for birth mothers, and six weeks for all non-birth parents. By most worldwide standards, these policies are meager; but in the United States, where only around 11 percent of private-sector employees receive any paid leave, they are downright princely.
When everyone was yelling last week, I couldn’t help but think: Isn’t this what we want more companies—and, even more, the federal government—to do? To support more paths to more kinds of familial and professional possibility for women? And also, why do these dire warnings happen in response to something like egg freezing, but not in response to all the other economically risky things that women are pressured to do in life … like having babies to begin with?
If women have babies, they are likely to incur well-documented professional and economic penalties (actually, someone did mention this in the egg freezing responses): Studies have shown that potential employers are less likely to respond to resumes of mothers than non-mothers, that they are likely to perceive mothers as less competent and committed than fathers, and that they are likely to see a diminishment in wages. And if they have children with male partners, those fathers are likely to incur no such wage or hiring penalties, and perhaps garner economic and professional boosts once they become fathers. If women marry young—perhaps with an eye to having families during their most fertile years!—their risk for divorce, and with it financial hardship, gets higher.
The fact is that almost all the choices available to women when it comes to both partnership and parenthood carry steep financial, emotional, and professional risks. And that’s not even counting the medical angle of parenthood: the unknowability of fertility at any age, the possibility of debilitating illness, bank-breaking health care costs, and the ever-changing risks of new medicine and treatments for everything from cancer to acne.
That this move by two high-profile tech companies—a move that in the best of all worlds might just expand the number of possible strategies for women looking to navigate these choppy waters—has provoked such agonizing warnings is discomfiting for another reason.
The warnings to women about how the medical industry and doctors are working to trick them, and how corporations are fooling them into believing in professional ambition over the pleasures of parenthood sound a little too much like the arguments made against abortion, and, in earlier generations, against contraception.
Women who are considering hormone injections, weeks-long egg gathering procedures—just like women who elect to evade or delay childbearing through contraception, or end pregnancies through termination—are likely not acting on a lark, at the behest of corporate overlords or manipulative scientists. It’s likely something they’ve given time and consideration to, a choice they’re making in the hopes that it fits their own individual needs and circumstances, which might be professional, or romantic, or emotional, or medical—or really, just personal.
Even for feminists, an imagined future in which women’s reproduction really did become as flexible as men’s—and no, I’m not claiming that egg freezing is that future, just that it’s a nascent, still flawed technology that allows us to imagine it—is a disruptive, even slightly nightmarish possibility. I understand why: Because if we really did live in a world in which individual men and women could pace their social, sexual, professional, and familial lives in an infinite variety of ways, gendered power relationships would truly be turned inside out … to some degree, perhaps obliterated. Any change that momentous is liable to make all of us nervous and uncomfortable.
But what if we really did find a way to lift the yoke of the biological clock? What would women do with their lives? How would they pace themselves? What would they achieve? What would they make of their lives, socially, sexually, politically, personally?
I’m certainly not endorsing egg freezing as any kind of panacea. I agree that we need to learn more about its side effects and success rates, things we need to learn more about with regard to any new medical advance. But there’s a little too much gender-essentialism for my taste in the messages that science is out to get us, leaving no possibility that—as in the past—the medical disruption of biological destiny might also play a role in freeing us.
So let’s apply all the smart advice and wise arguments about systemic, policy-based gender injustice for the everyday, sunrise-sunset realities of life as a woman in the United States, and trust women and their doctors to make their own individual choices (with the economic help, if they are very lucky, of their workplaces) about their bodies, their health, and their reproduction.