ART in the freeze frame: Some reflections on ‘elective’ oocyte cryopreservation

[image url=”http://mamsie.org/mamsieblog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/sophiezadeh-photo.jpg” alignment=”left” margin_left=”5″ margin_right=”5″ margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”0″ width=”84″ height=”100″]By Sophie Zadeh

In October of last year, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued a report on oocyte cryopreservation – egg freezing – in which it was determined that the proven success and safety of the technique permitted the lifting of its official ‘experimental’ label. In this report, however, it was also argued that too little is yet known about the medical, financial, ethical, psychological, and emotional effects of ‘elective’ oocyte preservation for the Society to recommend its use (1).

‘Elective’ oocyte cryopreservation – often dichotomised with egg freezing for medical reasons – has since become something of a hot topic within both professional and public discourse on assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). Defined by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority as a possibility for women who may be “concerned about [their] fertility declining as [they] get older, and are not currently in a position to have a child” (2), up-to-date ‘elective’ egg freezing techniques are available in fertility clinics across the UK to women wanting, so it is said, to ‘delay childbearing’ (3). Experts have testified to the efficacy of the technology – not least as a father’s graduation present to his daughter (4) – and users have spoken of the relief of not having to find Mr Right – right now (5) – through the use of this technique. Most recently, distinguished academic Professor Marcia C. Inhorn encouraged students to freeze their eggs in a news piece which received what might be deemed a rather icy reception (6, 7).

An initial US study of the motivations of 20 women who had undergone the treatment found that most had done so in order to ensure that they had taken advantage of ‘all reproductive opportunities’ available to them. Half of the women who took part in the study felt pressured to freeze their eggs as a result of their ticking ‘biological clock’ (8). Indeed, it has been said that egg freezing gives women a chance to buy themselves more biological time, and, particularly if used by women under the age of 35, may be an effective means to ‘having it all’ (9). Seen in this way, ‘elective’ egg freezing technology has the potential to eradicate the cohort that Marny Ireland described in 1993 as ‘transitional childless women’ – who have delayed making a decision about whether or not to have a child until it is too late (10).

It is clear that rumination over ‘elective’ oocyte preservation must now move beyond the arguments made by those in favour of its use, and those against it. As a feminist, my thoughts about this technology are not based upon a (dis)agreement with the decisions of individual women, but with how ‘elective’ egg freezing might relate to the condition of women as a social group (11). ‘Elective’ egg freezing technology is both emblematic and symptomatic of the twenty-first century motherhood mandate. At the heart of this lies a dualistic conception of acceptable womanhood and motherhood, contemporarily characterised by having it all – the career, the heterosexual relationship, and the biological child. This is problematic.

Commentary upon the changing nature of acceptable motherhood is, of course, not new. We know that in the UK in 2011, more mothers were working than ever before. We also know that the age at which women have their first child is now substantially later than it was in previous decades (12). And most fundamentally, we know that contemporary cultural narratives serve to reinforce these trends. Popular discourse undeniably advises us not only that there is a ‘right time’ to be a mother, but also that good mothering can only be done in the ‘right’ socioeconomic and demographic context (13). As Woollett and Boyle inform us,

“Motherhood is constituted not as normal and natural for all women, but only for those who are married or in stable heterosexual relationships, who are not ‘too old’ or ‘too young’, and who are in the ‘right’ economic and social positions.” (14)

This notion of acceptable motherhood is tied to appropriate womanhood in a conditional matrix which ideologically imposes the woman-as-mother mantra. Quite separate from this dominant discourse, however, are the experiences of women themselves. Research on the narratives of mothers of different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds has demonstrated that mothers ambivalently appropriate the concept of the ‘right time’, as it is biologically, relationally, and psychosocially defined (15). Some mothers find it difficult to reconcile what has been described as the ‘right time’ (chronological age) with the ‘right moment’ (biographical stage) (16). In fact, it is argued that in the pursuit of parenthood, women might rather be choosing what seems to be the ‘least wrong time’ – rather than the ‘right time’ – to have a child (17). It is also apparent that the ‘right time’ concept permeates the narratives of women who do not mother (18). Most fundamentally, it has been argued that the concept of time may serve as a useful tool with which to understand women’s childbearing choices in the contemporary context of assisted reproduction (19). This argument, it seems to me, is crucial to understanding the relationship between ‘elective’ oocyte cryopreservation and the modern motherhood mandate.

Indeed, unlike many other ARTs, ‘elective’ oocyte cryopreservation offers the possibility of motherhood in the future, as opposed to motherhood at present. It seems, therefore, that beyond Martin’s concept of ‘anticipated infertility’, ‘elective’ egg freezing technology gives rise to the new ontological category of the ‘future mother’ (20). More than this, it seems that ‘elective’ egg freezing rigorously reinforces a particular type of future motherhood which, in my view, is problematic for women everywhere. The paradox at the centre of this technology therefore lies in its ostensible acknowledgement of the acceptability of non-motherhood, and its implicit subscription to a social discourse which ultimately deems it – and (biological) motherhood prior to the meeting of milestones such as the high-flying career and long-term heterosexual relationship – unacceptable.

In practical terms, however, little is yet known about the efficacy of this technology for the ‘right time’ mother so imagined – with estimates of just twelve live births in the UK resulting from the technique to date (21). Indeed, it seems that despite the media attention regarding the opportunity to ‘elect’ to freeze one’s eggs, women are not yet scrambling to use this service. Like other ARTs, it will be the users – or non-users – who set the agenda on ‘elective’ oocyte cryopreservation. Whether this will be in line with, or against, the twenty-first century motherhood mandate as yet remains to be seen.

Biography

Sophie Zadeh is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research. Her research, supervised by Professor Susan Golombok, focuses on the experiences of single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child. She is most interested in social psychological approaches to assisted reproductive technologies and in the meaning of motherhood in changing sociocultural contexts.

References

    1. ASRM Office of Public Affairs (2012). Fertility experts issue new report on egg freezing; ASRM lifts experimental label from technique. Retrieved from http://www.asrm.org/Fertility_Experts_Issue_New_Report_on_Egg_Freezing_ASRM_Lifts_Experimental_Label_from_Technique/.
    2. HFEA (2013). Freezing and storing eggs. Retrieved from http://www.hfea.gov.uk/46.html.
    3. Negi, L. (2013). With thriving careers and highly disposable incomes, more women are taking the gamble of egg freezing as they climb the professional ladder or wait for Mr. Right. Mail Online, 9 January. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2259834/FEMAIL-With-thriving-careers-high-disposable-incomes-women-taking-gamble-egg-freezing-climb-professional-ladder-wait-Mr-Right.html.
    4. McAuliffe, N. (2012). Egg freezing – for the woman who can never win. The Guardian, 27 November. Retrieved from www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/27/egg-freezing-women-having-children.
    5. Bannerman, L. (2012). I froze my eggs at 38. It’s my back-up plan. T2, The Times, 26 November, 6-7.
    6. Inhorn, M.C. (2013). Women, consider freezing your eggs. CNN, 9 April. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2013/04/09/opinion/inhorn-egg-freezing
    7. Morgan, L.M. and Taylor, J.S. (2013). Op-Ed: Egg freezing: WTF? The Feminist Wire, 14 April. Retrieved from http://thefeministwire.com/2013/04/op-ed-egg-freezing-wtf/
    8. Gold, E., Copperman, K., Witkin, G., Jones, C., Copperman, A.B. (2006). P-187: A motivational assessment of women undergoing elective egg freezing for fertility preservation. Fertility and Sterility, 86, S201-S201.
    9. Inhorn, M.C. (2013). Women, consider freezing your eggs. CNN, 9 April. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2013/04/09/opinion/inhorn-egg-freezing.
    10. Ireland, M. S. (1993). Reconceiving women: Separating motherhood from female identity. New York: Guildford Press.
    11. Sandelowski, M. (1990). Fault lines: Infertility and imperiled sisterhood. Feminist studies, 16 (1), 33-51.
    12. Office for National Statistics (2011).  Mothers in the Labour Market, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_234036.pdf.
    13. Allen, K. and Osgood, J. (2009). Young women negotiating maternal subjectivities: the significance of social class. Studies in the maternal, 1 (2), 1-17.
    14. Woollett, A. and Boyle, M. (2000). Reproduction, women’s lives and subjectivities. Feminism and Psychology, 10 (3), 307-311.
    15. Perrier. M. (2013). No right time: The significance of reproductive timing for younger and older mothers’ moralities. The Sociological Review, 61, 69-87.
    16. Sevon, E. (2005). Timing motherhood: Experiencing and narrating the choice to become a mother. Feminism and Psychology, 15 (4), 461-482.
    17. Perrier. M. (2013). No right time: The significance of reproductive timing for younger and older mothers’ moralities. The Sociological Review, 61, 69-87.
    18. Earle, S. and Letherby, G. (2007). Conceiving time? Women who do or do not conceive. Sociology of Health and Illness, 29 (2), 233-250.
    19. Ibid.
    20. Martin, L.J. (2010). Anticipating Infertility: Egg freezing, genetic preservation, and risk. Gender and Society, 24 (4), 526-545.
    21. Magee, A. (2012). Fertility miracle or cruel myth? Daily Mail, 7 November. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2229454/Fertility-miracle-cruel-myth-Freezing-eggs-dream-come-true-high-fliers-wanting-delay-motherhood-A-decade-produced-just-12-babies-So-women-spending-fortune-it.html.
Share Button

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *