Perhaps you’ve heard of an employer providing egg freezing as a benefit for their female employees - or maybe your company offers it. Between marketing by fertility companies and being listed as a “health benefit” by employers, egg freezing promises to offer women further reproductive freedom. But is this accurate? And is egg freezing truly beneficial for women? A close look at the procedure reveals that egg freezing carries serious risks that are worth paying attention to. Here are five reasons to be wary.
1. Risks to immediate health.
Despite (misleading) advertising to the contrary, the process of egg extraction and freezing carries serious health risks, including ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a condition that comes with complications such as kidney failure and burst cysts that require surgery. In 1% of women, OHSS is fatal. The hormones used to stimulate the ovaries to produce many eggs in a single cycle also increase a woman’s risk of blood clots and some cancers. The ultimate long-term risks remain unknown, as there has yet to be a longitudinal study to reveal the outcomes for women who undergo these procedures.
2. Risks to future fertility.
This is another case where the fertility industry offers flat-out lies to women to entice them into entering their clinics. For example, one Southern California clinic boasts, “Your ovarian reserve and future fertility are unaffected.” Even in the unlikely case that the process has no effect on a woman’s natural fertility, the fact remains that fertility naturally declines over time, so the choice to delay childbearing could in itself cause problems. The “fall back” of frozen eggs may become a self-fulling prophecy: Women who may not have had issues conceiving in their younger years might be unintentionally creating the very struggles with infertility they are trying to avoid by choosing to delay childbearing. On top of that, IVF – the procedure later used to conceive using the frozen eggs – is expensive, dangerous, and difficult. The process by no means guarantees a child, and those who are successfully conceived face worse outcomes than do naturally-conceived children, including an increased risk of childhood cancer.
3. Risks of advanced maternal age.
Women who are able to conceive in their advanced years (naturally or otherwise) face higher risks than younger women. The medical community designates “advanced maternal age” as beginning at 35. This is not an arbitrary number: This is the age at which women face significantly increased risks of ectopic pregnancy, premature birth, birth defects, preeclampsia, and maternal mortality. In strictly medical terms, delaying childbirth is not in the best interest of a woman or her child. While many women can and do choose to grow their families at age 35 and beyond, all women need to be aware of the risks in order to make informed decisions.
4. Who really benefits from egg freezing?
Given the serious health risks to women and the children they conceive, who really benefits from egg freezing? Certainly the fertility industry benefits by cashing in on young women freezing their eggs. Subsequently, egg freezing extends a woman’s fertility only by the use of IVF, which further forces women and couples to become reliant on that same industry.
Women who delay childbearing because they have a “backup” may inadvertently create a self-fulfilling cycle in which the delay itself leaves them with a diminished capacity for natural conception. What glitters as a promise to extend their window of fertility in years actually ends up significantly reducing their overall chances of conception, while simultaneously increasing the odds of pregnancy complications and loss. Likewise, corporations will pay out less in time and money to women who delay childbearing, if only because this delay shortens women’s total fertility window and reduces their number of children overall.
In other words: It is less expensive for companies to pay for egg freezing than it is to pay for adequate maternity leave policies.
5. Long-term effects for women in the workplace
If more women choose to delay childbearing, there will be fewer mothers in the workplace, and certainly less pressure on corporations to accommodate the rhythms of women’s fertility. It is imperative that we make space for women to have autonomy in their childbearing practices and for mothers to be successful in the workplace. True equality should not require women’s bodies to mimic those of men, even in the workplace. Instead of offering egg freezing, truly innovative companies are working to reshape company culture and model authentic accommodation for mothers.
So, is freezing eggs ever beneficial?
While freezing eggs for later use in IVF is fraught with health risks and ethical issues, there may be good reason to freeze ovarian tissue if you are one of the many women undergoing treatment for cancer. Exciting new treatments offer cancer patients the opportunity to preserve their fertility through removal of the egg-producing tissue from the ovary during treatment, and to have that tissue replaced to restore fertility. This is a beautiful example of medicine working to restore health to full functioning, and is fully compatible with Catholic teaching on fertility.