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Debating the pros and cons of freezing eggs

News of Apple and Facebook paying for their employees’ egg freezing has sparked conversation on the advancement of family planning. Gwen Ifill speaks with Sarah Elizabeth Richards, author of “Motherhood Rescheduled” and Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the benefits, risks and choices women face.

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    For decades, medical advances have made it possible for women to postpone or extend their ability to have children. Now two big tech firms, Apple and Facebook, say they will pay up to $20,000 to allow employees to freeze their eggs for later fertilization.

    That decision has sparked a fair bit of conversation about the benefits, the risks and the choices women could face. We look at some of the questions the practice is raising, with Sarah Elizabeth Richards, the author of "Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It," and Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

    Alta Charo, I wonder at some level whether we're moving now from choices based on health concerns to choices based on having greater options.

    R. ALTA CHARO, University of Wisconsin, Madison: In a sense, yes, we are.

    Egg freezing certainly was important for women who had to undergo a medical procedure such as chemotherapy and who wanted to at least preserve the possibility of having children genetically of their own some time in the future.

    But the prospect of women beginning to do this in order to simply preserve their fertility while they advance their careers is a new phenomenon and somewhat more troubling, because it is simply not as successful as having children through ordinary conception or even through ordinary in vitro fertilization and freezing your embryos.


    Sarah Elizabeth Richards, you have written a book about this. You have talked to women about this. I understand you have even had your own eggs frozen.

    SARAH ELIZABETH RICHARDS, Author, "Motherhood, Rescheduled": I did.


    What are the advantages here?


    Well, it's great opportunity for women.

    The fact that these companies are covering it and the fact that other companies are now being influenced to cover it makes the option available for more women who — maybe who wouldn't have paid for it on their own or didn't have the opportunity to pay for it.

    So they will have more options in the future to have their own biological children, which is awesome. That said, this is really uncharted territory, because the first wave of women who froze their eggs when it first became available about a decade ago pretty much froze because they didn't have a partner or because they had gone through a divorce or weren't in the right relationship. So, they froze for love.

    Now we're seeing this being put out there as something, would a 32-year-old freeze because she wanted to put more years in her career? So, it is uncharted. We don't know how women will make those decisions in terms of planning their family and their work and their love lives and their dating lives. So it's unknown right now.


    Alta Charo, are there health risks involved in this procedure?


    Probably not as many as people fear. Certainly, the question of how to obtain women's eggs has come up before, whether for in vitro fertilization in the 1980s, or for donation of eggs for cloning research in the 1990s and into the early part of this century.

    And there has been some concern all along that the use of the drugs necessary to help them superovulate might cause problems. But the data suggests that it's actually very safe. It is, however, very uncomfortable and certainly not an experience one welcomes if you can avoid it.


    Sarah Elizabeth Richards, let's talk about what conversations this does open and doesn't open. For instance, some people said expanding women's opportunity to have children would mean expanding day care or paid maternity leave. Does this take the place of that?


    I really hope not.

    And that's been a big point that a lot of women have talked about. It certainly doesn't replace that conversation. And, in fact, one of the great outcomes of even talking about all this is that we are talking more about having affordable health care — I'm sorry — affordable child care and better maternity leave.

    So it's almost like one is bringing up the other conversation. So I think all boats are going to rise in this situation.


    But let me stay with you for a moment. Is this something that only women with resources can afford? Everybody doesn't work for Apple and Facebook, right?




    And everybody doesn't…


    And the funny thing is, those women probably can afford it anyway, because I hear the salaries are quite good there.

    No, it's not something that all women could afford. And that's one of the big problems or challenges in making it accessible to a lot of women. One of the women in my book, she put it on a credit card and paid it off — paid that balance off over many years. Other women have gotten help from their parents.

    I was really lucky. I used my savings, and then my parents helped me. But, you know, that's — it's not fair because a lot of women don't get access to it. That said, though, the prices are coming down. We're seeing it being offered for as low as $4,000 in some markets. And a lot of clinics are offering packages. For example, you can buy three cycles, which would give you the opportunity to put away enough eggs where you have a real shot of one turning into a baby later.

    Or they're offering all kinds of different pricing schemes. So it's definitely getting better.


    Alta Charo, obviously, technology is a great thing in many, many cases, but in this case, we're using technology to enhance a lifestyle choice, aren't we?


    Well, I think what we're seeing is technology being used to try to make it possible to keep the workplace organized just the way it is and the way it was originally designed for men, whose careers and educations would take place right after they finish high school into their 20s, and where women would ideally be able to have children earlier in life, when their bodies are better suited to it.

    Women are now using technology to try to make themselves seem as much like man as possible, so that they can have their children later after they have laid the groundwork for their career. It is absolutely true this is giving women options and it's making it economically feasible. And it's probably the most realistic thing for some women.

    But it is a shame that we haven't started a better conversation, not only about the fixes like the day care that was just mentioned, but a deeper conversation about how to reorganize the work world, so you don't need to be a superwoman at work and a superwoman at home at the same time. That's never been realistic.

    And I think the egg freezing is a somewhat extreme response to it.


    Elizabeth Richards, if you're talking to young women especially, is this a realistic option, or are we just talking about on the edges of the discussion?


    Well, we're definitely at the frontier of the procedure and the conversation.

    That said, if you're a woman in your early 30s or even in your late 20s and you don't have a partner or you don't see starting your family by the age of 35, if you can afford it, there's no reason not to freeze, because you may not start your family until you're 38 and those eggs might come in handy.

    But what a lot of women don't realize is that, what if you want a second, and then you're in your early 40s, or you want a third baby and you're in your mid-40s? You might really want those eggs.


    We need to also keep in mind, it's not so easy to have children in your late 30s and your 40s.

    It's not something we want to encourage people to do unless they have to. This is not the best time for you or your body to do this. And I don't think it's a good idea to encourage women to make life even harder for themselves.


    Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Sarah Elizabeth Richards, author of "Motherhood Rescheduled," thank you both very much.


    Thank you.

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