Corporate-Sponsored Social Egg Freezing


"Whose interest does egg freezing serve? The woman's or that of an ambitious, still pretty unforgiving culture that doesn't really ever see childbearing for female employees as convenient?", so New-York Times author and journalist Epstein. This quote reflects the not so new problematic of opening 'egg freezing' to women.

'Egg freezing' or 'oocyte cryopreservation' is a fertility preservation technique, which consists in collecting, preserving by freezing and so storing a woman's oocyte, in order to re-warm it at a later stage to give birth. This process is opened in most countries to women suffering from diseases or subjects to medical treatments which decrease fertility rates (e.g. cancer and chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery).

Due to socio-societal change, the place and role of women in western societies drifted towards men. Women nowadays seek for careers and are not necessarily willing to follow a heteronormative and patriarchal path. Therefore, women fertility tend to be delayed and childbearing is no longer central. This is a key development in women emancipation processes, which might give back control to women over their own fertility.

The way has been paved for medical centers and private clinics, as well as for 'fertility start-ups', proposing egg freezing as a service. These commercial clinics noticed the marketing possibilities raised by the feminist movement and call on women to 'own the future'. Egg freezing so becomes a commercial service, rebranded to almost look like a wellness experience, although this technique is a surgery involving whole-body narcosis. The use of this technique without medical ground is referred to as 'social egg freezing'.

Social egg freezing raises a great number of concerns and involves considerations regarding many different fields, such as law, ethics, social and human sciences, as well as politics. Some see in it a great step towards woman emancipation, some others might be concerned regarding the fact that this technique deliberately questions our common view on fertility and family.

Should social egg freezing be something we strive for? Is it right to let private and commercial companies propose it as a service? Is social egg freezing serving feminist or capitalist purposes?

This essay aims to highlight some of the many arguments for and against (corporate sponsored) social egg freezing. In this attempt, it is necessary to juggle between several core fields, such as ethics and law, but also politics and sociology.

Right to Procreation and Reproductive Autonomy

Freedom of Choice and Bodily Self-Determination - The concept of human dignity is at the core of western legal systems. It is a transcendent and intrinsic characteristic of each human being from the day they came to life. Individuals do not just rely on it to make use of their individual freedoms towards others, but human dignity is part of them, making one resolutely human. In this sense, human dignity is an empowering tool.

In the problematic of social egg freezing, human dignity is the basis on which one can argue that women should be able to make their own choice on what they do with and from their body. This freedom of choice is essential to the liberal thought, which arguments in favor of social egg freezing by highlighting the idea that humans are such because they are able, through human rights and in particular human dignity, to express their own will and to be free. The resulting freedom of choice is an important part of the debate, and it is based on it that women have the right to make decisions about their own body. Indeed, the body is intimately connected the one's person.

In an extensive way, bodily self-determination do not covers the sole body, but can expand to the concept of fertility in itself.

Fertility as a Female Ownership Right - The older a woman waits to get pregnant, the more the probability of giving birth decreases. Indeed, fertility weakens over time. This means that freezing eggs in an early age increases the chances of bearing a child later, when giving birth is not a priority for the woman.

Women having their bodies as their own and being driven by bodily self-determination in the choices they make relies on the concept of body as an ownership. According to supporters of this socio-philosophical approach, every individual has a property in his own person. The only one who is able to take a decision about the body is the own owner of it.

In this sense, egg freezing enables women to take over control over their fertility, making it a 'female ownership'. Without any external pressure or decision maker, women can decide when and how to give birth. This is in adequacy with transhumanist thinkers, who consider the liberation of humans through their ability to transcend their human condition. Technology and biomedical improvements allow humans to go beyond their natural boundaries and to own their deepest human characteristics.

Redefining Femininity - The transhumanist way of considering fertility as a female ownership enables women to plan their life as they intent to. Before, women traditionally were seen and considered as such through motherhood. By owning their fertility, women redefine what it is to be a woman. As transhumanists think that human beings are artificial by nature, and so human nature needs to be improved, social egg freezing enables women to improve woman being.

Furthermore, the idea that femininity is designed by motherhood leads women to crisis when loosing their fertility. As Andrea Maier once said 'ageing is an illness which we should fight again', this affirmation certainly is applicable to women. If loss of fertility comes with ageing and can be avoided through egg freezing, so is ageing, in a way, delayable. By delaying it, we admit the posthumanist idea that nature is broadly understandable as dynamic, and so partially human-made and improvable. The term 'improvable' reminds of the transhumanist belief of trespassing one's own humanity to correct possibles defects of human experience. For instance, lesbians are per se unable to trigger pregnancy. Rather than being unable to give birth or to bear a child, it is the process leading to it in itself that is made impossible due to their sexual orientation. But egg freezing, leading to pregnancy through assisted reproductive technology, permits to surpass the obstacle created by the sexual orientation. This example showcases the fact that social egg freezing put women back in lead of their own femininity, fertility and bodies.

Right to Private and Family Life

The ECHR provides for a right to private life, from which emanate reproductive rights of women. On this legal basis, the ECtHR ruled that private life includes the right to respect for both the decisions to become and not to become a parent. This ruling is essential to egg freezing, since it justifies the fact that women freezing their eggs are still able to choose afterwards whether to use it or not.

As for lesbians, the right to private life means for them that the right to conceive a child actually falls under the scope of article 8 ECHR. The ECtHR stated in another ruling that conceiving a child and using assisted procreation are also rights falling under the scope of article 8 ECHR, as this choice clearly is an expression of private and family life.

The right to private life is a basis allowing women to make use of egg freezing in order to choosing to delay their pregnancy and so pursuing a professional career. Women have been prevented from having a professional career because of the incapacity of current societies to combine family planning and working. Work-life balance is a concept applicable to men but not often enough for women. Egg freezing is a solution to this issue.

Being able to pursuit a professional career means that the gap between men and women equality diminishes. Egg freezing, in this way, participate - again - to women emancipation. Furthermore, a reason for inequality has long been that men have been allowed to preserve their semen by freezing it without condition, but women not. Social egg freezing eradicates this flagrant inequality.

Bioconservative thinkers tend to highlight the fact that human body must be protected. Indeed, according to the 'body as a gift' theory, women have been gifted with their bodies, hence the fact that the body is partly what makes us humans. In this sense, even if women have a right to bodily self-determination, they should be prevented from harming themselves - by harming their bodies. Protecting the body is, in a way, protecting humankind.

Legal regulations entail provisions inspired by this thought. An example is Article 21 of the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine or Article 3 of the European Charter of Fundamental rights. These texts provide for a prohibition of profiting financially of the human body.

The principle of indisponibility of the human body is based on the concept of human dignity as a constraint. According to this, human dignity is a transcendent tool meant to protect women against the instrumentalization of their bodies or against their objectification. In this sense, humans differentiate themselves from objects, as objects have a price but humans do not. What bioconservatives see as a disaggregation of the human body means that body is not holy anymore and is seen a nothing but a sum of components that can rise financial gains.

By allowing the spreading of egg freezing, some might argue that the way is paved for bio-economies relying on reproductive techniques.

In this sense, the question of the remaining eggs is raised. Once a woman decides to make use of egg freezing, it does not mean that she will actually use these eggs, or all of them. French legislator has decided to solve this issue by conditioning social egg freezing to the gift of some eggs for an eggs databank. Since all eggs are not used in most cases, this is an effective solution to not 'waste' the remaining eggs and to allow couple in need to access to fertile eggs, when they cannot give birth themselves.

In France, self-preservation is possible if the women who request it agree to donate part of their oocytes for (anonymous) donation, in exchange for helping an infertile woman who wishes to carry out a parental project. According to French law, Indeed 'when he is of age, the donor may not have procreated. He is then offered the collection and conservation of a part of his gametes or germinal tissues with a view to a possible later realization, for his benefit, of a medical assistance to procreation, [...]. This collection and conservation are subject to the consent of the donor.' The question then arises of a possible drift towards a form of commodification where the donation would be transformed into a kind of exchange in which the notion of interest would appear, which would cause the donation to lose its voluntary and gratuitous character as described by the law. In this sense, French ethicists warned from what they considered a form of State-made blackmail and a serious and unacceptable ethical fault, hence their wish to propose this technique of oocyte vitrification to all women, not only for medical reasons.

But in a utilitarian point of view, it might be possible to think of these eggs as financial assets that one could sale. Beside being in total contradiction to the principle of indisponibility of the human body, this would also objectify women by reducing them to their ability to give birth. In a way, egg freezing might as well destroy all rights and emancipations concepts it was able to create.

Another issue raised by social egg freezing is its prohibitive cost. Indeed, it might be problematic that some women can afford to make use of it and some not. If society evolves in a way which lead women to not be able to combine working and family life, more and more women will make use of egg freezing to delay their family planning. In this sense, if nothing stops this evolution, maybe we will end up in a situation in which being a mother is totally in contradiction with the values of the working society, and mothers will be discriminated.

In this kind of society, every woman willing to pursue a professional career will want to make use of egg freezing. But since the cost is so high, only women with the financial means to afford it will make it. In the end, it leads to a two-classes society in which some can afford procreation technologies and so combine work and family life, and others not. This is a serious issue questioning the general right to equality. This idea has been raised by Unesco's International Bioethics Committee on genome editing, which highlighted several risks of 'new forms of discrimination and stigmatization for those who cannot afford such [egg freezing] or simply do not want to resort to it.'

Social egg freezing is now being proposed as a service by private companies. This raises issues concerning the role of medicine and its value in society. The reason is that medicine is a common good which aims to restore and preserve the natural characteristics and functions of the human body. In this sense, the question whether medicine should remain a regulated domain and public prerogative or should be privatized is raised. Letting private companies get an increasing monopole on medical procedures can be dangerous in a way, as private companies often are driven by making profit and not by the common good.

Tech-companies as Facebook and Apple now propose to cover the costs of egg freezing for their employees, as a social benefit. Some feared that female employees might feel pressured by employers to delay their pregnancy if such procedure is available. This might be considered as a stranglehold of the free market on human procreation. It is questionable whether it is something society should strive for.

Furthermore, allowing employers to provide for this kind of social benefits for their employees mixes both work and private life. According to many European labour law legislations - and to the ruling of the ECtHR - family planning falls within the scope of Article 8 ECHR and so is a component of private life. The employer is not aimed ton know anything about private matters of employees, since it could lead to discrimination - for example of women that actually want to start their family planning within the context of their employment.

The use of social egg freezing raises the question of the role and place of work in society. Work has taken a central place in our lives, so that we try to arrange every private matters around our employment relation - even our natural predispositions, such as fertility. It means that humans now live to work, rather than they work to live. Instead of trying to delay pregnancy and family planning, it is necessary to rather rearrange and regulate employment law to find ways to include motherhood within the frame of working, and so achieve a better work/life balance.