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Is Egg Freezing a Smart Career Move?

October 15, 2014

Tags: egg freezing, fertility treatment, pregnancy, women in the workplace

Facebook and Apple recently announced they would start covering expenses for employees who choose to freeze their eggs. Despite giddy press reports of a new tool to help women achieve career parity with men, egg freezing is not simple.

To obtain eggs, women must undergo weeks of hormone medication and injections to increase egg production, with accompanying physical and mood changes. Eggs are removed under IV sedation and frozen. For a pregnancy attempt, the frozen eggs are thawed (not all successfully), fertilized with partner or donor sperm, developed into embryos (again, not all successfully) and transferred to the womb.

Still a relatively new procedure, egg freezing has been something of a godsend for young women with cancer. It lets them freeze eggs before fertility-destroying treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery or radiation begins. Women must be able to afford the time (about six weeks) and cost ($10,000 or so – insurance rarely covers it). Storage costs about $500 a year. In exchange, egg freezing and its big sister, embryo freezing, offer hope for becoming a parent later on.

But is egg freezing a smart move for otherwise healthy young women who are building careers and may not be ready to become pregnant? Companies taking this step emphasize it will help women advance in careers before motherhood. Yet it also benefits corporations. They get to keep valuable employees and knowledge in place – putting off to some far-off, maybe-never tomorrow the possibility of losing workers to maternity leave or longer for family reasons.

Until two years ago, egg freezing was considered experimental. USC Fertility, one of the few centers with a track record in egg freezing, says that for women under 38 years old, 10 to 20 eggs can be harvested in one cycle after hormone boosting. Of those, 7 of 10 frozen eggs will thaw successfully, with 5 to 6 possibly fertilizing and becoming embryos (usually 3 or 4 are transferred to attempt pregnancy). Cost for thawing, fertilization and transfer is about $5,000.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine approves egg freezing for medical need but cautions against healthy women using it. “Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing,” stated a report by the ASRM Practice Committee. “Patients who wish to pursue this technology should be carefully counseled.”

About 2,000 pregnancies worldwide have resulted from egg freezing. Theoretically, young eggs can grow in an older body. Yet although eggs may be frozen when women are in their 20s and early 30s, by their 40s and 50s many have medical conditions that make sustaining a pregnancy more difficult. Right now, there’s little data on successful pregnancies from frozen eggs in women older than 38.

Decisions about delaying fertility and undergoing rigorous medical procedures need to be carefully evaluated, not packaged and sold to employees like health-club memberships. Let’s see real-life evidence from companies, in addition to policies, that promote true career parity regardless of women’s fertility status, at any age.