Workers paid to put motherhood on ice...
Intel is the latest big company to consider paying employees to have their eggs frozen. Will women have to choose between postponing their careers or motherhood? We report on a controversial practice that is growing in popularity
Until recently, the issue of how and when a woman gives birth to a baby has been purely a matter for herself and her partner. The employer has not been involved in the business of making families, but all that may be changing in the brave new world of the modern corporation.
This week it was reported that Intel is the latest big tech company to consider paying female employees to have their eggs frozen. The facility is already provided by Apple and Facebook in the United States. Facebook offers up to €16,000 to its American staff for keeping their eggs on ice.
The freezing process, known as oocyte cryopreservation, enables a woman to have her eggs extracted and stored for an indefinite period.
They can then be planted in her uterus at a later time. This means she can delay pregnancy until a time of her choosing, assuming that the procedure works.
Egg preservation in this way is growing in popularity among Irish women. However, it is believed not a single baby has yet been born in Ireland after an egg was frozen here.
The work subsidy paid to future mothers offers yet more evidence that the lines between private and working lives in modern corporations are increasingly blurred.
While some women may see it as a useful company perk that is purely optional, others warn that it is going too far across the boundary into the intimate lives of individuals. As she revealed in an interview that the perk was being considered at Intel, the vice president, Margaret Burgraff, said she herself had reservations.
"I personally find it too intrusive," she said with admirable frankness. "I don't want my workplace involved in my fertility."
Until recently, Irish women tended to have their eggs frozen for medical reasons only.
For some years now, women with cancer have frozen their eggs because treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy affect fertility.
Now it is becoming more common for women to freeze their eggs for social reasons. They may feel that they have not met the right man yet, or they don't want to delay the advancement of their careers by becoming mothers immediately.
Dr David Walsh of Dublin's Sims fertility clinic says: "Social egg freezing has grown in popularity over the past two years as the technology has improved."
He adds that he has no problem with companies subsidising their employees to freeze their eggs
"It's a medical benefit, like anything else. Women get berated for leaving it too long to have a family. And then they are berated for doing something about it like freezing their eggs."
One of the pitfalls of egg freezing is that there is no guarantee that it will work, and the chances of a successful pregnancy drop sharply after a woman begins the process past the age of 35. Dr Walsh says: "Women who do it early and have lots of eggs have a good outcome. Women who are older, who have fewer good quality eggs, have a much lower chance of success. It's more of a possibility than a probability."
Is there not a danger that women who are capable of giving birth naturally with little difficulty in their early 30s, freeze their eggs and then find later that the procedure doesn't work?
Producing a baby from a frozen egg remains a gamble. Dr John Waterstone of the Cork Fertility Centre, who once delivered a baby from a frozen donated egg, is against social egg freezing and describes the subsidies paid by corporations for the procedure as "a dubious perk".
"If you tell a woman she can freeze her eggs, she may rely on that and not have a baby naturally. If you thaw the eggs when she is 40 and it doesn't work, you may have made it worse for her. It could be doing more harm than good."
In America, social egg freezing is much more widely accepted than here. Last year, the magazine Bloomberg Businessweek carried the coverline: "FREEZE YOUR EGGS, FREE YOUR CAREER."
So why do Apple and other big companies offer the perk?
After the payments for egg freezing were announced, a spokesman for Apple said: "Apple cares deeply about our employees and their families, and we are always looking at new ways our health programmes can meet their needs."
The company added: "We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families."
Businesses at all levels may have little difficulty in recruiting female staff, but they can have problems retaining them as they reach their mid-30s.
Louise Glennon,Women in Leadership Officer at the National Women's Council of Ireland, says: "Women tend to drop out of the workforce from the age of 35 onwards. Often it is when they have their second child, which can be linked with the prohibitive cost of having childcare."
Ms Glennon said the National Women's Council does not condemn the practice of paying for egg freezing outright. However, she expressed reservations about employers getting involved in issues that should be between a woman and her partner, or just a matter for herself.
The Businessweek article painted a rosy picture of egg freezing: "Imagine a world in which life isn't dictated by a biological clock. If a 25-year-old banks her eggs and, at 35, is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby. She can also hold out for the man or woman of her dreams."
In reality, the practice of egg freezing is fraught with difficulties that need to be considered. Some of the concerns are social as much as medical.
If women preserve their eggs, they may get pregnant at a much later age, and this brings many health risks, according to Dr Lynne O'Shea a researcher with Human Assisted Reproduction Ireland.
These include hypertension, pre-eclampsia and diabetes. There is also greater risk of premature birth and genetic disorders in the baby.
"The challenges of a newborn arrival in late adulthood must not be ignored, particularly if the pregnancy is postponed to the late forties and early fifties," says Dr O'Shea. "While the reproductive clock has been stopped, the biological one has irreversibly progressed."
Evidence suggests the majority of much older mothers regret their decision to have a child late in life, according to Dr O'Shea.
What are the implications for children born from older parents from thawed eggs? Dr O'Shea warns that they may be faced with taking care of their ageing parents from a young age.
"The social and economic implications of aged parental care for children and young adults need to be considered when having children later in life."
Adriana Iliescu, a retired university lecturer and children's story writer from Romania, caused a sensation in 2006 when she became the oldest woman to give birth at the age of 67 through an IVF procedure. Since then, mothers who are even older than that have given birth.
Dr David Walsh of the SIMs clinic says: "Any woman, so long as she has a uterus and is not unwell, can potentially become pregnant with a thawed egg. There is no physical reason why you can't do this beyond the age of 50, but we don't do it as a matter of custom and practice. Past the age of 50, there may be medical problems with the pregnancy."
In Silicon Valley in California, where egg freezing is common, the practice has even become part of the social scene.
The fertility expert, Dr Aimee Eyvazzadeh, has gained a certain notoriety for her "egg-freezing parties". These have been described as "cocktails-and-canapés get-togethers" for women looking for advice on postponing motherhood.
Sarah Elizabeth Richards, author of Motherhood, Rescheduled, supports the subsidies paid by companies. Although stereotypes abound of women freezing their eggs to single-mindedly climb the career ladder, she tells Review: "We need to give women more credit. For women who are ready to start their families, the ability to freeze their eggs isn't going to persuade them to put it off just to avoid interrupting their work."
Research shows that most women are freezing their eggs because they're not in the right relationship - not for career. Just because a company is offering to pay for freezing isn't going to change that.
Dr John Waterstone says social egg freezing is likely to become much more viable in the future. However, until the fertilisation of thawed eggs enjoys greater success, he does not recommend it.