Julie Wyma is in her late thirties, has a full time job, and is recently separated. She spent the summer tracking her period and preparing for a series of hormone injections. “I started my period five minutes before singing a concert. I was like, alright, it’s go time, this is happening.” As soon as the concert ended, she began the carefully planned flight of hormone shots. Julie, like thousands of women across Europe and the United States, is freezing her eggs.
Why do Julie and so many other women make this choice?
A Desire for a Family, but No Partner to Make it Happen
Since the pandemic, egg retrieval has increased by 39%. Julie’s reasons for egg extraction and storage could come from any of the thousands of women seeking out the procedure: “I might still want to have children someday, but I can’t right now, and I want to keep the possibility open.”
The Mayo Clinic offers four reasons for why a woman might freeze her eggs: having a disease or an autoimmune disorder that threatens fertility, undergoing medical treatment that affects fertility (such as chemotherapy), preparing for in vitro fertilization, or “wish[ing] to preserve younger eggs now for future use.”
It’s this last reason that drives most women to seek out fertility preservation, but the impetus for it is not always their career.
When a study from NYU asked women going through egg preservation why they were choosing to pursue the procedure, “the overwhelming (88%) reason cited was lack of a partner.” Yes, careers and family planning factored in, but the primary reason why women in the study sought to preserve future fertility is because they had not found a partner with whom to start a family, and they wanted to keep that dream alive.
It’s Not Always Possible to Put a Career on Hold
In September 2022, the New York Times published an article about the less-than-desirable success rate of egg freezing. Aside from pointing out the skyrocketing interest in the past few years, the article’s comments section offers a glimpse into the lived experience many women have when offered the chance to preserve their eggs, delaying the opportunity to conceive children:
“I would have loved to have had my children 10 years earlier – but this was not accommodated at the time.”
“Both women and men should be able to step out of the rat race during their most fertile years and put some focus on establishing a family, without being punished. In fact, we should be providing financial assistance to help offset the cost, since it’s almost impossible to have a lucrative career by your mid 20’s.”
“Change the workplace and career expectations so that young people can have children without forever being sidelined into the ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy’ track and never allowed to resume their genuine careers again.”
“We inflict upon ourselves costly and often painful medical procedures with a mere hope of future family life, rather than building a humane society in which such choices are unnecessary.”
“I lay the blame at the feet of a society and government that has created a system where young people spend their youth stressed about repaying loans, where hookups are taking the place of relationships, where both partners need to work for their whole lives to be able to afford basic necessities, where we are brainwashed into thinking that we are aren't ‘successful’ unless we making lots of money, where a woman is told that she isn't liberated unless she is being ‘productive’ in the service of capitalism, and where everything traditional is dismissed as regressive.”
Peppered in between comments celebrating the technology that makes freezing possible lies an overwhelming sentiment of frustration that it’s needed at all. Those commenting are self-selecting, and yet the anger expressed in the wake of this article is indicative of the larger problem facing women today: couples often determine it’s just not possible, financially or professionally, to raise a child during your prime career-building years.
As the Stigma of Egg Freezing Recedes, Curiosity Rises
“It’s been interesting how many conversations I’ve had with women from all areas of my life – and some men, too – who are really interested in the subject of egg freezing and of fertility in general, and who have been eager to have conversations about it,” shared Julie. “It’s clearly something we’re all interested in talking more about, we just need someone to get the ball rolling.”
For someone like Julie, in her thirties and exiting a marriage, the opportunity to freeze her eggs is not something she looked into before her divorce. “Like many women, I was thrown off for a little bit when my life timeline didn’t take the same timeline of marriage and children as my mother’s did.”
What is the Church’s Response to Egg Freezing?
In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith built upon Donum Vitae (Instruction for Respect of Human Life) with Dignitas Personae, which directly addresses egg freezing. The document acknowledges that “in order avoid the serious ethical problems posed by the freezing of embryos, the freezing of oocytes has also been advanced in the area of techniques of in vitro fertilization,” which is to say that couples pursuing in vitro fertilization may choose to freeze eggs instead of embryos to avoid the ethical problem of what to do with fertilized embryos if they are no longer needed. “Once a sufficient number of oocytes has been obtained for a series of attempts at artificial procreation, only those which are to be transferred into the mother’s body are fertilized while the others are frozen for future fertilization and transfer should the initial attempts not succeed.”
“In this regard,” says the Vatican, “it needs to be stated that cryopreservation of oocytes for the purpose of being used in artificial procreation is to be considered morally unacceptable.” The chief concern for the Catholic Church is to avoid the destruction of embryos, which constitute a form of life deserving of protection.
However, the Vatican does not directly address the preservation of eggs without a specific plan and in hopes of future pregnancy.
The guidance to date from the USCCB, such as Reproductive Technology (Evaluation & Treatment of Infertility) Guidelines for Catholic Couples and Reproductive Technology Evaluation and Treatment of Infertility offer commentary on multiple forms of artificial fertility assistance, but do not explicitly address the choice to freeze eggs. The Catholic Education Resource Center is equally vague: “These are very real questions that we don't have answers to yet, but that need to be considered. We need to revalue the natural and to recognize that just because we can use technology to do an end run around nature does not mean that we are necessarily wise in doing so.”
FemCatholic has previously explored why the popular movement for employers to offer egg freezing as part of compensation might not be in the best interest of the employee. Analysis suggests that employers use the promise of egg freezing to encourage employees to put off children, thus remaining productive workers. It’s cheaper for a business to cover the procedure to freeze eggs than it is to cover the cost of birth, parental leave, and an additional dependent.
Paul Lauridzen’s 2010 paper on Technology and Wholeness: Oncofertility and Catholic Tradition sought to answer this question from a Catholic perspective as well, finding “the Catholic Church has not issued a specific directive about this technology, [however] the general teaching on assisted reproduction is sufficiently clear that we can reasonably extrapolate from prior teaching to predict the likely response of the Vatican to this technology.”
Julie sees no conflict. “We live in a time when we are blessed with scientific innovation,” she explained. “I trust in God and my doctors. Neither of those things diminishes the other.”
The Question of Egg Freezing is Woven With Several Others
As with most issues facing women today, the question of egg freezing is woven with multiple threads.
Why are women having children later? Why do professional women struggle to support families? Why is it so hard for women of child-bearing age to find a suitable partner?
What policies are needed to ensure fair wages and access to childcare? Is the opportunity to freeze eggs an employee benefit, or does it stigmatize employees who choose to have children? Is access to egg freezing a benefit to women or a societal excuse to avoid tackling bigger issues of female equality?
Does discourse surrounding Church teaching allow enough space for the nuance of a woman’s lived experience?
Julie is under no illusions about the future she may face, should she choose to become pregnant. “I am incredibly grateful that the state of scientific development allows me the gift of extending my body’s timeline. It is, however, a burden that there is so little social support in general that it is in many cases impossible or extremely difficult for a woman to have a child on her own, generally paying out of pocket for conception or adoption and then being the single caregiver and earner for her family,” she said. “I feel that in general, society doesn’t do women many favors.”