‘Freeze your eggs and free your career’, the April 2014 cover of Bloomberg Businessweek proclaims. A young female executive in a defiant stance is pictured above the statement that there is a new fertility procedure giving women ‘more choices in the quest to have it all’. Apple and Facebook are said to be leading the way in offering financial support for their employees to access fertility services as part of their corporate commitment to employee health. These services may include gym membership and healthy-eating plans as well as financial assistance for surrogacy, adoption, and a process by which a woman’s eggs are harvested and preserved (frozen)—in this case, to be implanted at a later date when child bearing may be more professionally convenient.
Young women on a leadership track are given the opportunity to delay having children until after they are in their most fertile years, and $20,000 can be provided to assist with the cost of freezing their eggs. Framed as simply a matter of offering more choice for women, and drawing on liberal feminist idioms about empowerment and women’s control, this corporate move is an example of the intrusion of the market into private, intimate life in new and unprecedented ways. What alternative frameworks outside the discourse about reproductive choice can be used to understand the popular approval of cryopreservation as a solution to the conflict between motherhood and career, and the cultural anxieties circulating around this issue?
If we turn to the background and context for egg-freezing techniques, it is clear that they come with some risks. First, egg freezing may not be the reproductive insurance policy it is made out to be in current debates. The procedure appears to have about a 35-per-cent success rate when eggs are thawed and implanted, which can translate into fewer than three in ten women ending up with a baby. Women also face risks from the hormones used to stimulate egg production (ovarian hyper-stimulation) and from the egg-retrieval process.
It is worth noting that the technique was developed for medical reasons—to preserve a woman’s eggs while she underwent chemotherapy, for instance. However, the egg-freezing procedures of the past meant that the water in human egg cells could crystallise and become damaged. In the last five years a new technique called vitrification has been introduced that is so rapid that crystals do not form and the eggs are better preserved. The innovation here is a biotechnological one, yet it is marketised in social terms, as will be clear in what follows.
The language of the assisted-reproductive-technology market is decidedly ‘progressive’, and on IVF websites there are sections dealing with ‘Egg Freezing for Social Reasons’. Unlike virtually all of the commentary on this issue, there is not the assumption here that the women targeted are heterosexual. Advertisements in IVF clinics for this procedure read as almost sociological in character, like thoughtful reflections on the problems of career and motherhood that women face or on the difficulties of finding the right partner at the right time.
The fertility industry, like the corporations promoting social freezing as a choice, draw on and reproduce constructions in the popular imagination of ideas of ‘the right time’ or ‘the right partner’. This is not to say that women do not struggle with the real consequences of life decisions around having or not having children. These decisions go to the heart of our emotional lives, and women can experience enormous suffering if they find they have ‘left it too late’ to be able to have children. Lois Tonkin documents this beautifully in her 2014 University of Canterbury (New Zealand) PhD thesis, Fantasy and Loss in Circumstantial Childlessness. With great sensitivity and insight, she shows how her female interviewees grieve for the loss of the children they never had. Some have names for these absent children, have bought clothes for them, and have created narratives about their lives. Her study highlights most dramatically the way ideas of motherhood are ‘entangled with women’s conscious and unconscious fantasies, desires, anxieties, and ambivalence about becoming mothers, and with the limits and possibilities both of female embodiment and of agency around reproductive decision-making’.
The lure, then, of being able to put these life-changing decisions on hold by freezing one’s eggs while young is completely understandable. Yet there are other dimensions to the promotion of a quick technological fix for a complex social problem. The structure that underpins the ideas that motherhood is a problem to be solved by better time management and that, if one only gets the timing right, motherhood will fit seamlessly into a career-driven environment is left unchallenged and unchanged by cryopreservation. If there is an incompatibility between work and motherhood then that is the crucial issue, not the time management of individual women.
In the public debate that followed Apple’s announcement about its new health and fertility option for female employees, commentary ranged from celebrating the opportunity egg freezing provided for women to have more control over decisions about reproduction to concern about the company interfering in the personal decisions of professional women. Both sides of this debate were framed around the idea of choice. Both also raised such important questions as What is a market relationship? and What are the non-market aspects of life?
The liberal feminist arguments in favour of cryopreservation for career purposes, illustrate what Meagan Tyler and Miranda Kiraly have appropriately called ‘choice feminism’ in their recent collection Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism. An individualised ‘feminism lite’, all about personal choice and empowerment, seems to dominate online commentary on this topic. In ‘5 Things Every Woman Should Know About Egg Freezing’, Rachael Rettner quotes Dr Wendy Vitek as saying: ‘The power in egg banking is that it allows women to have the freedom to keep looking for the right partner, and alleviates the stress that occurs when a woman is in her late 30s and early 40s and hasn’t quite found the right person’.
In other online posts, social freezing is depicted as a wonderful option providing women with choice, freedom and control. In TechCrunch.com Sara Buhr cites a 2013 study published in the reputable journal Fertility and Sterility that found that women ‘in their 30s reported to feeling empowered by the prospect of being able to delay a family though cryopreservation’. It is interesting that these same women who were interviewed also ‘cited workplace inflexibility as the reason for delaying having a child’.
Closer to home, Lauren Rosewarne in The Drum (October 2014) lines up with choice feminism on the issue of egg freezing. Adding a touch of postmodern irony (a regular feature of this genre of writing) to a mostly fence-sitting analysis, she refers to the fact that egg freezing can be interpreted as ‘gussying up the norm of a workplace of non-parents with a lip service, progressive-sounding policy that really is about status-quo maintenance’. She then introduces the notion of women’s choice, which is surely ‘a positive thing’. The ‘progressive-sounding policy’ is thus transformed into a genuinely progressive policy, as ‘this is not something being thrust upon women; rather, it’s just another option’. Rosewarne concludes that egg freezing is ‘a pretty enlightened option’—just another offering or tool women can use, like the gyms some companies provide, and perks like Hawaiian vacations, salary sacrifice or a car park. This is a fine example of the logic and ideas of comparability at the centre of neoliberalism. As Kean Birch puts it in ‘How to Think Like a Neoliberal’: ‘all things have to be comparable in order for us to be able to make our market decisions, so everything has to be conceived as having a price that can be compared with other prices’.
Describing egg freezing as just another tool makes it appear neutral—even, dare I say it, genderless—and ignores the very reasons the giant tech corporations have built this option into their business plans. In my view it also does a disservice to women struggling with questions of what motherhood may mean for them. As Nancy Chodorow writes in ‘“Too Late”: Ambivalence About Motherhood, Choice and Time’, a 2003 piece for the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association: ‘Motherhood begins internally in the conflictual, intense cauldron of childhood sexuality and object relations, and is overdetermined, filled with fantasy, and complex: any woman’s desire for children, whether immediately fulfilled, fulfilled belatedly, or never fulfilled, contains layers of affect and meaning’.
Decisions about motherhood and fertility differ, in every possible way, from deciding whether or not to take advantage of the company massage service or the on-site laundry facility that Google offers its staff, or the car park that Rosewarne mentions. In a neoliberal context, there are ideological reasons that these differences need to be ironed out: to create the appearance that these new tendencies in capitalist commodification are just an extension of previous or current arrangements and affective ties. To normalise and minimise the commercial nature of these transactions opens up other aspects of intimate life for commodification.
Before discussing how conceptions of the self can be quietly reconfigured by these changes into what Arlie Hochschild calls the ‘outsourced self’, it is worth looking at some of the mechanisms used by the fertility industry to promote oocyte cryotherapy. Social freezing has become a highly lucrative procedure. Melissa Fyfe and Julie-Anne Davies’ ‘Putting Motherhood on Ice’ (Good Weekend, The Age, 6 June 2015) is instructive about this. The authors describe going to a seminar in Melbourne called ‘Eggs in the City’. Irony is once again at work here: how apt to play on Sex and the City, a program about buying shoes, looking for Mr Right and preserving one’s viability on the sexual market. The seminar drew what are described inelegantly as ‘typical freezers’. Apparently they are in their twenties, thirties and perhaps early forties, ‘educated, successful and driven’, but they have just not yet found their knight in shining armour. Notably, they are professional women with private health insurance. In US debates, these women are defined more bluntly as ‘making a ton of money’ (no irony here). In Businessweek, one social freezer, Emily, proudly talks of her ‘19 Ivy League Business School eggs’ that cost ‘more than a car but less than a house to freeze’.
In these reproductive-technology roadshows, advertised as public-education events, the metaphors are all about fertility preservation and fertility insurance. A sociologist might call this managing risk or managing uncertainty. The women interviewed for the Good Weekend article also document other benefits of freezing: as a dating aid, for example, so ‘they can meet men without radiating the desperation caused by a clutch of rapidly deteriorating eggs’. Additionally, egg freezing is marketed as a form of altruistic gifting from parents who really care about their daughters. In the United States, companies are targeting what they describe as ‘potential grandparents’ to fund their daughter’s oocyte cryopreservation. Fyfe and Davies quote Melbourne IVF’s John McBain: ‘My view is that parents have to take a hand in this. If you’ve got a 30-year-old daughter with no partner and a career, you might consider giving her a cycle of egg-harvesting for her 30th birthday’.
While the language here is all about technological optimism, and companies ‘really caring’ about women by helping them with their forward planning, it is important to remember that egg freezing grew out of the work of cattle breeders in the mid-1900s who experimented with freezing bull semen in order to maximise their profits by controlling, managing and standardising conception. Like the cattle breeders, tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo aim to manage and standardise the conception of their female employees. It is notable that the business press is far less queasy than the tabloids about the profit motive in debates about this topic. In some instances, it is even more critical. Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, asks why Apple and Facebook would pay $20,000 for egg freezing but not provide the same money for a baby nurse to support mothers in their first five months after giving birth, or use the money to build real nurseries in their offices so that new mothers and babies can be better supported.
The business articles also point to the fact that on ‘diversity indicators’ the tech giants measure up very badly. These corporations are great in terms of their wild perks but are dismal examples of gender and cultural diversity. Shareholders do not like this, especially in the case of corporations that pride themselves on their ethics, creativity and alternative models of work. Reducing the gender gap and changing statistics about diversity by retaining or attracting more women to the company would also be part of the business case for funding fertility services. Other articles on the topic raise questions about the social messages conveyed by these corporate offers of oocyte cryotherapy. According to Business Insider, these perks may increase gender inequality by sending the message that the ‘only way to succeed in corporate America is not to have children’, therefore doing the opposite of what was intended and driving women away from the work force.
Importantly, in promoting social egg freezing, the business case never features explicitly in the equation. The rhetoric is all about caring and choice, underpinned by a neoliberal logic that the individual employee needs to think in terms of cost and benefits but that the company is funding this out of the goodness of its heart. Take, for example, the following from Apple, quoted in a 15 October 2014 Guardian piece, ‘Apple and Facebook Offer to Freeze Eggs for Female Employees’:
We continue to expand our benefits for women, with new extended maternity leave policy, along with cryopreservation and egg storage as part of our extensive support for infertility treatments…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, an Apple spokesperson stated in an email.
As Apple seems only too aware, the intrusion of commercial values into areas previously considered to be uncontaminated by the unfeeling market always produces anxiety. Introducing such changes in the language of selflessness and love normalises what previously may have been considered unthinkable: namely, an employer intervening in a woman’s decision about when she should or should not have a baby. The language of care veils the actual structure of power and exploitation. It also reproduces the familiar neoliberal directive that all of social life is transparent and clear when viewed through a market lens and that markets are the only mechanisms that allow us to act freely, without constraint. The dramatic nature of the cultural shifts represented by these biotechnological and social developments remains hidden.
This attempt to normalise profound cultural change applies to other examples of the penetration of the market into private life: paying someone to toilet train your child (what in the United States is terrifyingly called ‘potty-training boot camp’), paying someone to throw a Frisbee with your children on the weekend, or paying someone to teach your child how to tie their shoelaces. Like social egg freezing, this kind of marketisation serves to remake our understandings of mothering, fathering, children, the body and the self.
The divisible body
According to Nancy Scheper-Hughes in the collection Commodifying Bodies, new forms of commercialisation and consumption have produced a different kind of body: the divisible body, ‘severed from the self, torn from the social fabric, and thrust into commercial transactions—as organs, secretions, reproductive capacities, and tissues—responding to the dictates of an incipiently global marketplace’. This memorable collection of essays was written well before social egg freezing was on the radar, and contributors draw on frameworks from anthropology, sociology and psychoanalysis. These theoretical perspectives offer an alternative to the freedom fallacy of ‘choice-feminist’, neoliberal arguments and their normalising intents.
First, there is recognition that, like the commercialisation of human surrogacy, this is uncharted territory for capitalism, bringing with it unfamiliar ‘bio-moral logics’ and what Lawrence Cohen, one of the contributors, calls a ‘new ethic of parts’. Similar reproductive interventions are discussed openly as potentially disruptive and as a more troubling form of consumption. Second, there is an acknowledgement that a different imaginary of body, self and other is produced by certain commercial, reproductive and biotechnological developments. And third, at a symbolic level and at the level of the real, these processes reconfigure social relations, often in unintended ways.
Consider, for example, the idea of gifting that emerges in corporations’ fertility-preservation policy (discussed above) and in the assisted-reproduction industry. As we have seen, the giant tech corporations use the language of dispensing largesse when they speak of providing their female employees with the opportunity to freeze their eggs during their most fertile years. This gift appears to have no strings attached. Yet, as we know, commodities and indeed gifts are never just things in themselves. They always carry meanings that are in excess of their materiality and they possess a ‘phantom objectivity’. This chimera-like quality complicates the notion of ‘choosing rationally’ to accept or not to accept what the company offers. Notably, the language of transnational gifting is also used in human breast milk markets, where commercial (as opposed to medical) milk banks transport what they describe as a global, mobile bio-substance across borders, under the rubric of providing a special gift from one woman to another. There are also numerous examples of the surrogacy industry and international surrogates themselves representing their commercial transactions as gifts.
The fertility industry, as we have seen, further encourages parents of young, fertile, high-achieving women to give their daughters a cycle of egg harvesting as a birthday gift, in order to ensure that they have grandchildren. Similarly, there is much about potentiality in public discussions of oocyte cryotherapy. Parents of young career women are described as ‘potential grandparents’ by the assisted-reproduction industry. The women undergoing the procedure are ‘potential mothers’, with the apparent luxury of being able to defer decision making about reproduction. Conception is a potentiality, conveniently located outside the female body in a realm free of corporeal attachment. It is difficult to know what this might mean for the women themselves or for broader social and family relations. It is also difficult to know what kinds of fantasies may come into play about all these frozen eggs as potential children.
On the other hand, the fantasy of ‘the right partner’, like that of ‘the right time’, is frequently mentioned and ever deferred. One assumes that, for heterosexual women, ‘the right partner’ is also imagined as a father for these yet-to-be-conceived children. Yet it is remarkable how little mention is made specifically of fathers in this discourse. (Fathers perhaps hover as another potentiality.) By contrast, ‘partners’ seem to have a more material presence in discussions about egg freezing and decision making generally. The cultural promotion of an ever-growing ‘choice’, where potential options can be more important and pleasurable than actually choosing, must make the ultimate decision about who is ‘the right partner’ even more difficult, especially for someone with ‘19 Ivy League eggs’ on ice. The danger may not only be the relatively low chance of pregnancy associated with some of these procedures but the sense that one’s fertility, like one’s potential as a spouse or mother, is always elsewhere.
To conclude, it is worth looking at another term used in the egg-freezing debate, one with significant psychosocial implications. The idea of ‘preservation’, in fertility-preservation policies or in preserving one’s option to become a mother, implies a notion of ‘indefinite preservation’. Like the frequent references to potentialities, a woman who freezes her eggs has part of her body elsewhere, in a latent, liminal state. ‘Freezing’ is another key signifier here. In one of the most suggestive online discussions about cryopreservation, a 20 October 2014 CNN piece called ‘Egg Freezing a Better Deal for Companies than for Women’, authors Rene Almeling, Joanna Radin and Sarah S. Richardson refer to this liminality as the transformation of life into ‘frozen assets’:
Freezing eggs appears to make reproduction controllable, but one cannot freeze time. Even if cells can be hoarded and stored, time cannot. Time and life and bodies march on; we age even if our reproductive materials are transformed into frozen assets.
To my surprise, there is a whole new and challenging literature on the ‘cryopolitics of frozen life’. The practice of freezing is said to create various political, ethical and temporal conundrums. In her 2014 University of Pennsylvania PhD thesis, Life on Ice, Joanna Radin writes evocatively of an ‘epistemology of preservation’ that is central to concepts of survival in a risk society. In this new epistemology, what is preserved is always on the threshold of decline. The notion of indefinite preservation is indeed comforting, given the cultural and economic emphasis on the importance of managing uncertainty. Living in a finite body becomes a process of carefully governing a series of potentialities to ensure one’s assets do not diminish over time. It is a familiar scenario, and it is even paradoxical to think that the neoliberal celebration of incessant change should also include ‘indefinite preservation’ as a currency.
While some women may, understandably, turn to egg freezing as a form of preserving their chance to become a mother, the promotion of the practice by the fertility industry and the provision of financial support for it by Apple and Facebook as a health service for their female employees fail to capture the intensely complex, profound and conflicted ‘layers of affect and meaning’ that are mobilised by the desire to have children. This desire will never be completely managed by the corporation, nor contained by the prevailing discourse that equates choice with empowerment for women.
Julie Stephens is a writer and academic in the College of Arts at Victoria University. Her book Confronting Post-Maternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory and Care (Columbia University Press, 2011) explores cultural anxieties around current ideas of the maternal.