Resetting Your Biological Clock

Egg freezing opens up new frontiers in gender equality.


More and more American women are waiting until they are older to have children. Why? Because they are building their careers and waiting for Mr. Right. But what if Mr. Right fails to come along before they turn 35? 

As the biological clock ticks along, the chances of having biologically related children diminish steeply, especially as women pass their mid-30s. So some women are now taking out "fertility insurance" by having clinics retrieve and freeze their youthful eggs. 

In May The New York Times devoted some front-page real estate to a new twist on this practice: would-be grandparents subsidizing the freezing of their daughters' eggs. Fertility specialist Daniel Shapiro, medical director of Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta, told the Times his egg-freezing patients often say, "My parents want me to have this as a gift."

While many women put off childbearing as their careers develop, others are stuck waiting for their relationships to reach the next level, thanks to the fecklessness of modern men. Many women in their late 20s and early 30s are in long-term relationships with men whom they think will eventually father their children. Occasionally, the relationships don't work out, and the women find themselves in their mid-30s or later without a promising partner. 

Things have been trending this way for a while. The average age of mothers at first birth has increased from 21.4 in 1970 to 25.2 in 2009, according to the most recent vital statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, the CDC reports, the "rate of 39.1 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 was the lowest ever reported in the nearly seven decades for which a consistent series of rates is available." By contrast, the rate for women aged 35–39 was 46.5 births per 1,000 women. In fact, more children are now being born to women over age 35 than to women under 20.

Every advance in assisted reproduction comes with ethical questions, and this one is no different. First, should eggs be set aside at all? In her 2009 Bioethics article, "Egg Freezing: A Breakthrough for Reproductive Autonomy," North Carolina State University philosopher Karey Harwood notes that infertility occurs when a normal biological process is impeded by disease or defect. Thus assisted reproduction techniques are used to treat the illness of infertility.

But women who decide to have their eggs frozen are not infertile. They are making an "elective" or "social" choice to take advantage of a new technology. Does this make any ethical difference? No, argues Harwood. She points out that contraception and nontherapeutic abortion are both "elective" and do not treat an illness. "The analogy to a contraceptive pill is apt because both egg freezing and the pill can effectuate delayed reproduction," writes Harwood. "Because egg freezing may be reasonably interpreted as another form of family planning, it can be considered a legitimate exercise in reproductive autonomy."

One ethical upside to freezing eggs is that it gets around moral concerns about whether frozen embryos are persons, since uninseminated eggs do not have two sets of genes derived from parents. That issue is apt to come up eventually, however, if the frozen eggs are later used to create embryos via in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques for implantation into a woman's womb. Standard IVF techniques often involve producing extra embryos that are frozen as backups to be used if those initially introduced into a woman's womb fail to implant or if patients later want additional children. Consequently, there are often frozen embryos left over once IVF treatments have been completed. Clinics could avoid the issue of what to do with spare embryos by freezing eggs and sperm separately.

The biological clock is relentless. A woman's fertility, defined as her probability of getting pregnant during a year, falls from 86 percent at age 20 to 52 percent at age 35. Thereafter it drops ever more steeply to 36 percent by age 40 and 5 percent by age 45.

Ethicists fret that egg freezing as "fertility insurance" engenders false hopes, in part because women may overestimate the real chances of having a baby using this technique. If the relevant standard is the success rate of other IVF techniques, recent data from several clinics indicate that the rate of live births using frozen eggs is comparable, with about one in three cycles resulting in a live birth.

Another concern is that women who hear of the technique will wait too long before taking advantage of it. Clinical evidence strongly suggests that the chances of having a baby are greater for women who choose to freeze their eggs before age 35. Eggs frozen after that age do not grow and implant as readily. Older eggs are far more likely to have flaws that prevent them from developing into babies than younger eggs do. 

Another ethical concern is that children born from frozen eggs might be disproportionately at risk of various physical and mental harms. Already some 2,000 children may have been born using frozen eggs. Preliminary evidence indicates that the rate of birth defects among such children is comparable to that among children born by means of conventional IVF techniques. For example, a 2009 study looked at 936 live births from frozen eggs and reported, "Compared with congenital anomalies occurring in naturally conceived infants, no difference was noted." 

Some ethicists argue that egg freezing amounts to an illegitimate technological fix for persistent problems of sexual inequality. They argue that the ethical thing to do is to change workplaces so there is less conflict between bearing children and having a career. They also say public policy should encourage women to avoid the problem of age-related infertility by having children at younger ages. 

The case of France suggests that attempts to shift public policy in directions friendly to childbearing and rearing may have limits. In pronatalist France, the average age for first childbirth is 29.9 years (vs. 25.2 in the U.S.), and despite all sorts of social programs aimed at easing the burdens of child rearing, French women have a lower labor force participation rate than American women.

Furthermore, egg freezing actually promotes equality between the sexes. In a 2009 paper for the journal Bioethics, Oxford University philosophers Imogen Goold and Julian Savulsecu note: "Men already enjoy the choice of when they have children. Women should have the opportunity to enjoy the same choices as men, if we can provide them, unless there are good reasons not to." Instead of dismissing egg freezing as a mere biomedical work-around, we should celebrate it as another way in which technological progress is reducing and ameliorating inequalities between men and women. 

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).

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  1. “…her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”

    There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of women having babies in their teens.

    1. Nice! I watched that silliness a couple of weeks ago.

  2. Medical ethicists should fuck off.

    Ark B, the lot of them.

    Even when they happen to get something right.

  3. What is going on with these rollover popup ad links? Fuck you, Reason!

  4. There is a new technique that might work even better – they freeze a piece of a woman’s ovary (or several pieces) which can then be grafted back in later. The tissue can be harvested once when they are young, then grafted on every 10 years when they are older, and this delays menopause indefinitely.

    Should Women Freeze Ovarian Tissue To Have Babies Later In Life?

  5. While many women put off childbearing as their careers develop, others are stuck waiting for their relationships to reach the next level, thanks to the fecklessness of modern men.

    Ah, it’s men’s fault; of course!

    1. It’s good to be the king

    2. Yeah. And the other gem:

      Men already enjoy the choice of when they have children.

      Like it’s a man choice to find a mate and make her carry a pregnancy to term.

      1. Well when the only tool you have is a contra spread canon then everything looks like a fertile egg…or an invading alien horde.

  6. Women get to have the periods and the babies. Mother Nature wants that. And she wants them to have babies in their 20s and designed the system that way. Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn if women have fulfilling careers. With apologies to political correctness and with a nod to reality, It’s not good to mess with Mother Nature. That’s a pity indeed but life ain’t fair. Ask men, who get to do all the heavy lifting, go to war, have heart attacks, kill the spiders, and live five fewer years. Waaa.

    1. Ice Nine Pontificates: “It’s not good to mess with Mother Nature.”

      The Blade Runner might think differently about that.…..n-no-legs/

      1. BFD, I’m sure millions of women think differently about it too.


        1. pon.tif.i.cate
          verb |p?n?tifi?k?t| [ intrans. ]
          express one’s opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic

      2. Pathetic.

        Now the Trees are all kept equal, by hatchet, axe, and saw.

    2. Mother nature also limited the lives of humans through disease and predators for thousands of years. Advances through our own ingenuity have increased the life-span and the quality of life for most of the world. This is just another way to increase the happiness and prosperity of women from now until the end of the race. If you’d like to follow Dear Mother Nature, then feel free not to use modern medicine or sanitation practices. In other words, fuck right off 😉

      1. You misunderstand; I wish women well in this doomed endeavor. Just keep the whining to a minimum please.

        (Love the smiley.)

  7. If you care about your children, have them when you are young. No one, even even your darling offspring, wants to spend their 20s wiping their mom’s ass before helping her off the toilet.

  8. “While many women put off childbearing as their careers develop, others are stuck waiting for their relationships to reach the next level, thanks to the fecklessness of modern men. Many women in their late 20s and early 30s are in long-term relationships with men whom they think will eventually father their children. Occasionally, the relationships don’t work out, and the women find themselves in their mid-30s or later without a promising partner.” – Bailey

    This is the second time I’ve read this exact statement from you Mr. Bailey. Your article is about women delaying Mother Nature’s clock. What purpose does this statement have in the context of the article? Or does it servce as a nice punch line at the expense of men?

    I think young people in general are unthinking and irresponsible not just men. Anecdotal sure but I can honestly say I know more men who want families and I know a ton of women who believe a father is not necessary to raise a family.

    Perhaps its unithinking and irresponsible to mess with Mother Natures clock and to try and have your cake and eat it too? I’m not sure myself.

  9. Thanks for any further updates you can provide.

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