Saving time, saving the world?
For the past 30-odd years, statistics have shown that women are choosing to prioritise their own lives and put off having kids.
Science is making the process of delaying pregnancy easier than ever, and as the price tag for reproductive technology decreases, women could push their childbearing years a staggering ten or fifteen years down the line. The availability of this option will be transformative for many women, who may feel trapped by the traditional chronology of college-job-marriage-children-death.
Widespread, accessible use of technology that allows women to wait to have kids until they are in their 40s or later could be a positive force for sweeping societal and economic shifts around the world, and it could radically change our comprehension of how to spend time in our lives.
Still, while it may be easier than ever to freeze and use a young, healthy egg, there are some biological hold ups, and ethical considerations, about applying reproductive technology to extensively change how women plan their lives.
Egg freezing: The beginning of the future
Facebook and Apple were the first to do so, but they aren’t alone when it comes to corporations offering employees the option of harvesting and freezing their healthy eggs. The procedure and tissue storage are covered by the companies’ insurance packages, and the idea is that if a 29-year-old isn’t ready to have kids yet, she can hit a biological pause button and reassess the situation when she’s ready.
Obviously, eggs from a young woman are healthier and more likely to successfully become fertilized later, than the eggs of, say, a 42-year-old, who has a comparatively miniscule chance of successful pregnancy.
The idea of normalizing procrastination of motherhood will no doubt be an incendiary one. But it also allows for a debate that would not be possible without the application of what could be a revolutionary modification to the human experience.
There is a feminist position that sees the trend of conglomerates beginning to pay for oocyte cryopreservation, encouraging women to stay in the workforce longer and put off having kids, as a tricky maneuver by corporate interests and Western culture to subvert the natural cycle of womanhood.
This is nonsense.
If anything, the option of pushing off childbearing years is an incredibly liberating one, creating a plethora of choices that women have previously been biologically prohibited from exploring. And because the trailblazers of the technology are the big companies, it only suggests that mainstream acceptance of the practice, and therefore universal availability, won’t be too far behind.
Time saved is time gained
In the next 20 years, technology such as oocyte preservation will become an ordinary part of the assisted reproduction process.
By this time, research indicates that women will have outpaced men completely in academic achievement, and will likely begin to outnumber them in the boardroom as well. And without the gap that says “I had a baby” on their resumes, a full-blown acquisition of management positions across the corporate world by women is certain.
But obviously, accomplishment in business isn’t the only feat women can achieve with the extra time they have by stalling what was once an anatomical mandate. With an extra decade or more in the bank, facing questions like “should I have kids?” becomes abstract, and there are no limits to possibilities of what to do instead.
Oocyte preservation is only the leading edge of a suite of technologies that can push the limits of how and when we conceive humans.
We are living longer than ever, and soon, we will be able to manipulate multiple available technologies in tandem to add further years to our lives, shifting away from the preconceived chronology that has dominated civilization for centuries.
Yes, these technologies raise important ethical questions, such as, is there an age that’s too old to start having kids? Maybe there is, but it’s unclear that an age limit is not an arbitrary one based on the individual.
Many critics assert that assisted reproduction technology itself is unnatural, and many question the impact this technology may have on human reproduction in general, and the children that are created this way.
What impact will the advent of this technology have on our society when it becomes mainstream? And what comes after freezing eggs — is it ethical to choose to implant only healthy embryos? Should people be allowed to choose how to create their children, or should the government regulate these issues more closely? Should research continue into artificial wombs, and give the entirety of the reproductive system over to machines, only in the interest of adding years to our lives? Is it worth it?
These are important questions that should, and will be, debated.
However, the answers that matter aren’t based on deciding whether we should accept and allow reproductive technology to change the course of our biology. Clearly, it will transpire regardless.
The pugnaciousness of reproductive politics won’t fall away because women use technology to give themselves time to grow as people and as leaders. Instead, we must assess how to handle changes to our evolution, and embrace the immensely positive outcomes for women.
Economic, political and societal impacts
It is clear that women who wait longer to have kids boost their socio-economic status, and education and income levels, increasing their buying power and influence because they have deeper pockets. Families see a gender-balancing culture shift, but so does the economy and the political map.
When women hold the purse strings, they are more likely to pay for and support policies that help other women and children, such as paid parental leave, expanded reproductive rights, universal healthcare, and public education.
Women who have the time to finish school and establish stable jobs create more opportunities for themselves and their kids, reducing the reliance on government assistance.
Additionally, waiting to have kids is even a boon for the environment, because increased control over when women choose to reproduce — or not at all — leads to population decrease.
In many countries where women wait until after 30 to procreate, the next generation is smaller than previous ones, meaning concerns about ecological effects of babies is beginning to be offset in developed and middle-income countries.
The positive outcomes of women grabbing control of their lives are seemingly endless.
It’s possible that using technology to push the limits of biology to delay childbearing may just be the thing that saves the world.
Alex Pearlman (@lexikon1) is a journalist covering emerging issues in science and technology. She studies bioethics at King’s College London.