Israeli biologists rebuke Facebook, Apple for suggesting female workers freeze eggs

Leading biologists at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science reject offer by US companies to encourage women to postpone motherhood and boost careers.

November 3, 2014 16:19
4 minute read.
Petri dish [Illustrative]

Petri dish [Illustrative]. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Two leading biologists at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science have strongly objected to an offer by Facebook and Apple to the US companies’ female employees to finance the freezing of their ova so they can delay motherhood, as a pathway for improving women’s access to fulfilling careers.

The position paper was issued on Monday by Prof. Michal Neeman, dean of the biology faculty and director of the Clore Center for Biological Physics, and Prof. Nava Dekel of the developmental biology department. Their ire was triggered by the companies’ announcement of October 14.

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“We fear that other companies around the world and even in Israel will make such an offer and create a new social norm at a time when male partners should have equal responsibility for their children and the ova freezing technology should be a last resort,” they told The Jerusalem Post.

In 2011, the Health Ministry allowed women in certain groups age 30 to 41 to have up to 20 of their healthy eggs frozen and stored at their own expense in hospital fertility unit ova banks for later use.

Until then, only teenage girls and women undergoing chemotherapy or other treatments that destroy ova were allowed to have the procedure done at state expense, so they could eventually become pregnant through in vitro fertilization (IVF).

The ministry added non-medical reasons for freezing eggs – largely benefiting single religious Jewish women who for halachic reasons do not want to get pregnant at the moment with donated sperm.

Since then, there have been very few cases of freezing ova for this reason here, not only because of the cost but also because the technology is not advanced enough and success rates are low.

It is technically easy to freeze embryos, which is done routinely for infertile women, but eggs are very sensitive to crystallization even when special agents for preserving them are used. Several cycles have to be performed to produce this many eggs, “and it is a gamble. The technology should be developed more,” the professors said.

“Women have to produce between 30 to 60 healthy ova to produce a few that will become babies,” they said. In this process, they have to receive hormones that could risk their health – no trivial matter when the aim is delaying childbirth for advancing one’s career.

“While we appreciate the intention of these companies in advancing women to high ranks,” the Weizmann biologists wrote, “we were appalled by their approach. There will be pressure by companies on women to do this.”

Freezing oocytes or embryos “offer a miracle of hope for infertile women, often survivors of harsh chemotherapy or radiation. Because of the importance of these procedures, a number of us have dedicated a significant part of our scientific career to expand our knowledge of fertility and to advance its improvement where it fails. But even at its best, current technologies offer merely a poor probability alternative to natural, unassisted pregnancy, within the notoriously short biological window.”

They added that “this hope also comes with a heavy price tag. Assisted fertility carries acute and long-term risks to the mother and is accompanied by possible malformations to the offspring. In the absence of alternative, such a price may appear low. However, it is our view that convenience use of such technology is at best premature.”

The optimal biological window of female fertility remains open for only some 15 to 20 years, from the age of 20 to 35 (although many women do give birth after that, but at higher risk. “This period overlaps – with cruel precision – with the critical years of key career decisions. The dilemma of family versus career requirements, results all too often, in the loss of female talent from key positions in all areas of life including academia, industry, finance and politics.”

The researchers added: “Corporate decisions on the best use of money for advancing the career of women through specific support for postponing fertility carries a heavy chauvinist odor and reflect the fact that unfortunately society did not yet reach the understanding that the responsibility of raising children should be equally divided between both parents. There are clearly many other ways by which money can ease the difficulties of combining family and career, beyond postponing childbirth. For example, money can aid in living closer to work, it can be used to pay for care at home or for childcare at work.”

Current career paths evolved over history to fit the life of men in single-career families, they wrote. “Advancing the integration and promotion of women at work could be adapted to better fit women and accommodate the biological clock as a basic determinant of the endogenous human physiology for reproduction.

Placing women at medical risk in unnecessary assisted reproduction programs can easily be conceived as a cynical move designed solely for the benefit of the employers.”

Even as people live longer, the years of reproduction have not changed, “but the years available for advancing the career have increased dramatically, and thus society, and workplaces could allow for support to young parents so they could both work to advance their careers while and after caring for their children.”

They concluded that if anyone should be blamed for this concept of freezing ova to delay childbearing to benefit women’s careers, “it is society that doesn’t recognize that women need space to have children as biology dictates and to help them. There must be a new model.”

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