Last week, the tech industry shocked North America. It wasn't with an app that knows when you're out of toilet paper or an iPhone that turns into an iron. It shocked us with news that Facebook now covers up to $20,000 in egg freezing expenses, a lead Apple will start to follow in January.
Overnight, the land of geeks has become the nucleus of a raging debate over women's reproductive rights. Some argue the money would be better spent on services that help working mothers, such as on-site childcare. Others say, quit complaining: both companies offer family programs that put them leaps ahead in a country without mandated paid maternity leave. But the loudest, and most ridiculous criticism decries the perk as a Big Brotherish attempt to ensure women make profits before placentas.
Sure, women who take the offer will work longer before becoming mothers. But many women decided long before these new programs that they would rather have their babies later in life, if at all. Facebook and Apple may be leaders when it comes to targeted advertising and sleek design, but on delayed motherhood, they are simply following a well-established trend.
The number of pregnant women between 35-39 has jumped by 150 per cent since the 1970s. In fact, the 35 to 44 cohort was the only one to see an increase in birth rate in 2011. And women aren't just giving birth later -- they are giving birth less. The latest StatsCan numbers show fertility rates in Canada have declined three years in a row to 1.61 children per woman. Twenty per cent of women reach middle age without offspring.
You've probably noticed that young women's attitudes towards marriage and children have changed. When my friends and I scroll through Facebook, it's not the bridal photo shoots in the forest or the chubby babies with goop on their cheeks that invoke envy - it's the statuses about promotions or book deals that make us cry "always the blogger, never the author." Obviously not all professionals in their late-20s put success before motherhood, but for more and more young women, our priority is getting paid to do what we love. (see the million trend pieces on millennials being spoiled brats who want to feel -- gasp! -- fulfilled at work). And that takes a lot of energy.
You could say we're all slaves to a 24/7 work cycle, but it's not just career ambitions that block the road to pregnancy. A study from the Leeds Centre for Reproductive Medicine found that most women over 30 freeze their eggs because they aren't in a stable relationship. Many others delay motherhood because of finances. Some just don't feel ready.
Freezing your eggs freezes the stress of knowing your fertile years have an expiration date. For that reason, women have been flocking to the process before it became a Facebook perk. Skeptics will point out the many caveats: it's expensive (upwards of $10,000), unreliable (there's nearly a 50 per cent chance of success for women who freeze before 34) and uncomfortable (it involves hormone injections and can cause severe bloating).
But still, demand for the procedure has quadrupled in the last four years according to Dr. Alan Copperman, director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology at Mount Sinai hospital. In Canada, 80 per cent of assisted reproductive technology clinics offer some form of egg freezing. And it's not just single, older women without partners who are signing up. Yes, they currently make a the dominant client base, but that will change as the procedure becomes more mainstream (it was only in 2012 that egg freezing was no longer deemed "experimental"). Copperman told The Guardian mothers often give the gift of frozen eggs to their ambitious daughters. The process also appeals to a growing group who might never benefit from better day care or maternity leave: the undecided.
Presumably Facebook's new policy aims to attract more female staff (it should be noted the company already offers programs for current mothers such as paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare, $4,000 in "baby cash" to new parents and on-site nursing rooms). Career-hungry women might be better lured by egg freezing than programs that more tangibly support working mothers. Why? They're on the fence about the whole baby thing. "... Many women aren't delaying -- they're debating," wrote Ann Friedman in New York magazine. "For them, motherhood is not an inevitability put off by a long search for the perfect partner. They are genuinely confused about whether or not they want kids. Not now, not someday, but ever." Indeed, roughly a quarter of millennials aren't sure if they want to have children. Egg freezing appeals to women like me, who like the idea of parenthood in the abstract but have no immediate plans to begin diaper duty.
You can disagree with women who delay motherhood, but the number of mommy-come-latelies will continue to bloom. An egg freezing policy is simply supporting their choice, which should be celebrated as a victory for women's rights rather than condemned as a corporate death sentence. Facebook and Apple aren't the puppeteers of women's fertility. They've simply followed our stage directions.
*This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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