As a bioethicist, I appreciate the fact that the American public has become deeply engaged in a number of important health policy debates.
For example, should local, state and national agencies forcibly quarantine travelers coming from countries affected by the Ebola virus? Should public and private companies be required to provide employees with health insurance plans that include oral contraceptives if doing so runs counter to the religious beliefs of the owners? Should terminally ill cancer patient Brittany Maynard have the right to end her own life (which she did this past Saturday)?
One interesting story that slipped under the radar, however, was the recent announcement that two major corporations, tech giant Apple and social networking service Facebook, will now pay for female employees who want to freeze their eggs. These companies will cover the costs of extracting, freezing and storing eggs, even when this is done for non-medical reasons. This is a pretty substantial benefit, as the extracting the eggs can cost $20,000 or more. Storage fees can run an additional $1,000 a year.
This should be up for public discussion and debate. Although many people may disagree with me, I believe that these two companies (and those that follow their example) are making a big mistake. That is not to say that I don’t think that companies like Apple and Facebook shouldn’t provide coverage for fertility-related treatments like egg freezing as part of a comprehensive health insurance plan. They should, but only for medically justified reasons.
The technical name for egg freezing is oocyte cryopreservation, and it is a physically invasive and potentially risky procedure. Women must first take a cocktail of drugs called gonadotropins to hyperstimulate egg production, tricking their ovaries into producing a dozen or more eggs rather than one or two ova that are normally released during the normal monthly fertility cycle. Doctors then insert a long needle through the vaginal wall and into the ovary, sucking out the eggs and preparing them for long term storage.
As you might imagine, this is an extremely uncomfortable procedure. Most women experience bloating and abdominal pain, but more severe side effects are not uncommon. Nearly half of all women will experience a condition known Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS), which may require hospitalization to treat the bleeding and severe fluid buildup that results. Errant needles can cause injury to the bladder, bowel and kidneys. Finally, the ovaries can develop scar tissue at the site of puncture or the drugs used for hyperstimulation can trigger early onset of menopause, resulting in infertility in both cases.
Moreover, while new techniques for freezing and storing eggs have improved to the point where over 90% of all cryopreserved oocytes survive the freeze-thaw process, far fewer of those eggs will lead to a successful birth via in vitro fertilization (IVF). According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, for instance, the rate of live birth among women aged 30 who used cryopreserved eggs for IVF is less than 25%. That rate drops to less than 10% for women over 40.
These concerns – safety, efficacy, and potential physical risks — are why professional organizations like American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) only support the use of egg freezing when medically necessary. Egg freezing should be done only as a last resort to protect fertility in women undergoing ovary-destroying cancer treatment, for example, rather than as a way to delay childbearing as a matter of choice.
Unfortunately, the latter is exactly what companies like Apple and Facebook are promoting. Covering the costs of oocyte cryopreservation for non-medical reasons reinforces the idea that professional women must choose between having a fulfilling career and raising a family. Moreover, even if a woman successfully delays childbirth by freezing her eggs, she has only delayed the inevitable. She must still confront a corporate culture that sees mothers as an economic liability.
If companies like Apple and Facebook truly want to support their female employees, they don’t need to pay for egg freezing. What they need to do is provide both female and male employees with the services and benefits necessary for meaningful work-life balance, including paid leave for new biological and adoptive parents, family sick leave, and subsidized daycare and preschool programs. Better yet, they should use their wealth and political connections to lobby our leaders in Washington to make such benefits the law of the land.
Until then, we’re still leaving most working women (and many working men) out in the cold.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on November 6, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website.]