Thursday, October 23, 2014

Saving Ova for Later

Columnist Susan Reimer writes about Apple's offer to subsidize the freezing of eggs for women who want to delay childbearing while still taking advantage of the optimum age for producing healthy ova (a perk already offered by Facebook):

Susan Reimer

In theory, these women can jump-start their careers with the prospect of being able to time motherhood to fit their life plans. One catch, as Reimer points out, is that the optimum age for harvesting eggs is in the twenties, and how many young women of that age are likely to have jobs offering this benefit? At present, also, there's the practical problem of the low success rate for in vitro fertilization of previously frozen eggs.

One observation by Reimer: "One commentator wondered aloud if we really wanted to support a society that requires us to work so hard that we have no time to have children. I would argue that we are already that society. This just makes it easier for women to navigate it." She also points out that before focusing on such a relatively exotic perk, we should work harder on accessibility of health coverage, maternity benefits, day care, flexible work hours, etc.

Those who've read Heinlein's PODKAYNE OF MARS will recall that in the future society of the novel a similar process of cryogenic preservation is routine (on Mars, at least, where the human inhabitants tend to marry early and have large families). The custom reconciles the discrepancy between the best biological age for conceiving and gestating infants and the best social age, in terms of emotional maturity and financial stability, for rearing them. In this novel, however, couples don't save eggs or embryos; they have full-term infants, produced through natural pregnancy and birth, frozen. Podkayne mentions one typical example, a young married couple who have their babies while finishing school, then consign them to cryogenic preservation. After both husband and wife complete the main phase of their careers and take early retirement, they have all three of their babies revived to be raised as triplets. Podkayne's own mother had five children in quick succession, Podkayne and her younger brother being characters in the novel and their three infant siblings still being in stasis at the opening of the story. If Heinlein were writing this book now, I suspect he would opt for preservation of embryos rather than full-term babies.

If the technology of freezing eggs or embryos ever becomes reliable enough to be as routine as on Podkayne's Mars, would that necessarily be a Good Thing? We might ask whether professional women who decline this perk and choose to have children earlier in their careers might find themselves subtly penalized, stigmatized as not sufficiently dedicated to their work. And would the custom of allowing some women (the privileged) to postpone the child-rearing life stage through cryogenics spawn yet another class distinction? Given the possibility of these effects, might availability of such a procedure become another way of encouraging women to become as workaholic as would-be successful men have traditionally been expected to be?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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