The Lancet says that all women in their 20s or early 30s should be given the chance to freeze their eggs or ovarian tissue, in case they need to postpone starting a family. Which sounds reasonable – a kind of biological insurance policy for the complicated lives women lead.
However, could the present climate of fertility-paranoia be making expensive, complicated and unreliable options suddenly seem not only feasible and desirable, but also normal and routine?
Astonishingly, in some quarters, the feeling still persists that women need to be warned about their “fertility cliff” – that is, how their ability to conceive falls away sharply by their mid-to-late 30s. How could any sentient woman have missed this big news? It’s been blasted out enough times over the media megaphone: “Attention all thirtysomething women. You think you’re still powerfully fertile, but, biologically speaking, you’re not. In fact, you’re fast approaching the state of dried-up hags. Sort out your ovarian-slacking pronto or you’ll be doomed to INFERTILITY. Yes, you heard right, women, INFERTILITY!”
Far from being muted, this message seems to be on a tape-loop, hissing into the communal female ear, in the manner of scaremongering muzak in a lift that’s broken down between floors. These days, how could any woman have missed it? Perhaps 10 years ago, maybe even five, but not now.
Obviously it’s good that the message is getting through. It needed to. However, before women whoop with relief and rush to clinics to get their eggs or tissue frozen, questions need to be asked. Techniques such as egg freezing are known to be difficult. There is at present a low success rate, though figures have been skewed by cancer patients undergoing the treatment – and the success rate improves for the more modern vitrification method.
Then there is age – isn’t it going to be difficult to engage twentysomething women, who are most likely to have success, rather than their late-thirtysomething counterparts? On an economic level, the improved methods are expensive, in which case it seems unlikely that they would be offered universally.
Moreover, isn’t it irresponsible to encourage women to put such inordinate faith in techniques that, while exciting and even liberating, are even now still developing and as yet have no guaranteed success rate?
What happens when women go through with this procedure, heavily rely upon it, only to find out later, with a terrible shock, that it simply didn’t work, a revelation that generally would only come years later? In many cases, it would be far too late to do anything about it. Arguably, these women would have been better off if they’d remained concerned about their waning fertility and therefore proactive about their situation.
Some might say, well, those are the breaks, the risks would be spelled out, and women can make their own minds up. Still, strange isn’t it, how swiftly any area that involves “unnecessary” surgery on women becomes so pat? Just as the ugly, painful and problematic realities of plastic surgery are so often glossed over, simplified, sanitised and prettified, for the consumer, so too there is a danger that egg and tissue freezing techniques could end up marketed as some kind of quasi-feminist answer to a modern gal’s prayers, when the facts are so much more complicated.
There remains a powerful argument for egg and tissue freezing – not as a sure thing (because what is?), but in terms of providing a valuable option for women who, for whatever reason, need to postpone having children.
However, isn’t it time society stopped treating women as if they were not only stupid, but stupid twice over? First, too stupid to be aware of the fertility paranoia swirling around them, and then so stupid that they allow themselves to be blinded by false hope in what might not turn out to be all-conquering science.