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Why are more women choosing to put fertility “on ice”?

Society suffers when young men and women do not form families. 

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When Apple and Facebook announced in 2014 that they would extend their fertility and surrogacy benefits for employees to cover the costs of egg freezing, Bloomberg Businessweek pronounced that the procedure would do more to “change family and career planning” than the birth control pill.  Claiming that access to egg freezing would enable women to “kiss the Mommy track goodbye,” Businessweek asked readers to imagine a world in which life isn’t dictated by a biological clock.

It is difficult to imagine such a world—because that world will never exist.  Life will always be dictated by a biological clock for women and for men. There will always be a biological clock  because most women want to become mothers someday—and although the egg freezing benefit can extend that possibility for a while, it is physically impossible to delay it forever.

Although egg freezing was presented by corporations as “a way to level the playing field between women and men” the truth is that encouraging women to trade their most productive childbearing years for the possibility of a promotion at work is hardly a benefit—except to the employers who are offering the benefit. Besides, “career planning” is not the reason most women are choosing to freeze their eggs. Rather, women are increasingly choosing the procedure because they have been unable to find a suitable male partner to create a family with.

A new study by Yale University Professor Marcia Inhorn reveals that the majority of the 150 “egg-freezing” women they interviewed at fertility clinics claimed that they chose to freeze their eggs because they were unable to find a partner to fertilize them. Calling it a “technological concession to the man deficit,” Inhorn concluded that women who chose to freeze their eggs used the procedure to “buy time” while continuing their search for a suitable partner to father their children

An advocate for the procedure, Inhorn published a CNN op-ed in 2013 which began with the sentence: “I wish I’d had the option of egg freezing.” Inhorn describes the “fertility penalty” for highly educated professional women, pointing out that in America, 43% of corporate professional women between the ages of 33 and 46 are childless.  In the United Kingdom, more than a third of women with college degrees remained childless at the end of their childbearing years.  Likewise, Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” promotes egg freezing in order to increase women’s career options.

Yet, neither Slaughter nor Inhorn address the very real concern that women who are offered the egg freezing option may feel pressured by their employers to delay childbearing. When such a generous benefit is provided, women may be expected to use that benefit to delay marriage and childbearing altogether. That is the real concern.  When women delay marriage and childbearing because they are unable to find a suitable partner, and then choose instead to commit themselves to their careers, they may never find a partner at all.

The “missing men” problem is real.  The Atlantic points out in this June 27, 2017 article that millions of men in the prime of their lives are “missing” from the labor force as the share of men ages 25-54 who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s—growing exponentially worse in the last decade.  It is not surprising that these men—which skew young—are less likely to be suitable husbands and parents.

Society suffers when young men and women do not form families.  If the government truly wanted to help, it would find ways to increase male participation in the manufacturing and construction sectors; state subsidies for employment in male-dominated occupations would be a start.  Repairing bridges, re-building highways, and other construction work would do more to build families than fashionable and unnecessary fertility treatments.

The Church has long taught that fertility treatments should be reserved for those who are truly infertile.  And, even then, Catholic teachings mandate that such treatment must be moral. In 1987, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) which concluded that while some fertility methods are moral, others—because they do violence to the dignity of the human person and the institution of marriage—are immoral.  In “Begotten Not Made,” a document published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dr. John Haas points out that Donum Vitae teaches that if a given medical intervention assists the marriage act to achieve pregnancy, it may be considered moral; if the intervention replaces the marriage act in order to engender life, it is not moral. It is difficult to justify—from a Catholic perspective—the decision by a woman to freeze her eggs before even acquiring a marriage partner.

In some ways, Apple, Facebook, and a growing list of consultancy and financial firms are engaging in a form of false consciousness—what Karl Marx might define as a way in which self-interested corporations mislead their employees in order to hide the very real exploitation of their workers. Women are being exploited by these risky fertility procedures—and some are physically injured—by the procedures.  Using technology to convince women to forego motherhood and remain tied to their careers through their peak childbearing years does not benefit women.  And, although egg-freezing may be the easier solution for employers to advocate, perhaps it is time for us all to begin to think about how to help men become more desirable marriage partners.

About Anne Hendershott 75 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).

2 Comments

  1. Read the earth can only support 9 billion people and we are at 7-1/2. As a Protestant I have wondered whether perhaps it is time to consider, well if we go over the 9 Billion will there be more and more as nations and people fight each other for resources and food.

    My mother was one of those sexually abused by Catholic priests therefore am Protestant.

    But Catholic Church kind to me hearing lectures from a PhD in Bible. I now finally understand the Bible and see many beautriful things in the Catholic Church so, Thank you.

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