As a [Turkish] woman in my early thirties, I have realized that I am becoming more and more “exposed” to thoughts, conversations, advice and even warnings concerning reproduction and having a child. Conducting my dissertation fieldwork in IVF clinics definitely contributes to this exposure. Somehow, my interviews and/or conversations with women undergoing IVF to have a child in their thirties or forties often take the form of women cautiously advising me (as a 32-year-old, unmarried, doctoral student – a.k.a., a “career woman”) to get married and have a child before it’s too late. In a way, the women’s admonishment implies, “Look at us, take your lesson!” For example, last week I spoke with a middle-age woman who had accompanied her 33-year-old daughter, resting in bed after embryo transfer, to the clinic where I conduct my fieldwork. The daughter was having IVF using donated eggs since she had been diagnosed with premature menopause in her late twenties, while she was engaged to her husband. One of her sisters was also having fertility problems and could not have a child. During our interview, the woman’s mother, when she learned that I was 32 and single, scolded me a couple of times to “Get married! Do not wait! Look [at my daughter]! It [a child] does not happen always!” When I kindly tried to avoid responding to her words with a smile on my face, she repeated: “Look at you smiling! Get married, get married! Look! It [a child] is not happening then.” I also had such conversations with IVF specialists:
- How old are you?
- Are you married? Any child?
- You are doing a career! You might consider egg freezing, then!
In Turkey, egg freezing is legally available only for medical reasons. In September 2014, the state expanded the scope of allowable medical conditions warranting the practice. According to the previous 2010 regulation, egg freezing was only allowed prior to medical treatments that could seriously damage gonad cells, such as chemotherapy and radiotheraphy, or prior to the surgical removal of ovaries. Now, women with a “low ovarian reserve” or with a family history of early menopause are also legally eligible for egg freezing. This expanded scope of egg freezing is an understandable move in Turkey where egg donation is strictly forbidden. However, Turkish regulation does not allow egg freezing for nonmedical or “elective” reasons, such as the reason popularly known as “pursuing a career.” That’s why Turkish women who want to delay childbearing by using egg freezing for nonmedical reasons — and who can afford it — travel to other countries, such as Northern Cyprus, where the practice is available. According to a famous Turkish Cypriot IVF specialist, the reason why women pursue nonmedical egg freezing is as follows: “As age advances, the chance of pregnancy falls and the risk of genetic anomalies increases. For example, the chance of pregnancy is 85 % normal at the age of 25, but only 40% of pregnancies at the age of 40 are normal. That’s why women pursuing education and career are getting too old to become a mother. These women, delaying finding a proper husband to have a child with, want to have their eggs frozen to ensure their likelihood of having a child in their late ages” [From the interview with the IVF specialist in a Turkish daily newspaper in 2008.]
Let’s say that upon receiving such professional advice, and assuming I have the necessary financial means, I want to have my “32-year-old eggs” frozen, hoping to ensure my ability of having a child in my late thirties or early forties. To achieve this goal, I, like any woman who undergoes a regular IVF cycle, must take hormonal injections for 10-15 days to induce my ovaries to produce more than one egg (possibly 10, 20 or even 30) during a menstrual cycle. Then, my hormonally induced eggs need to be removed from my body under anesthesia, and be quickly frozen and preserved in a temperature of -196ºC. “Egg pick-up” [or “harvesting”] by women is more demanding and riskier than sperm provision by men via masturbation (although surgical sperm retrieval is needed in some cases). So, what is this troublesome and risky effort for? Of course, it is for having a child! Besides, aren’t women always (expected) to make sacrifices? You might ask: How is that relevant? Here it comes. New reproductive technologies have widened the scope of maternal sacrifice and sacrificial mothering towards pre-pregnancy. Women’s sacrificial efforts (financial, embodied, spiritual and emotional) to have a child, already expanded toward pre-conception with IVF, are spread further to encompass the “investment management of eggs” thorough egg freezing.
As I am writing these words, I am also trying to imagine and understand what the young woman suffering from early menopause (mentioned above) might have possibly felt when her doctor broke the news, or how a young woman with a cancer diagnosis might decide to freeze her eggs before starting her cancer treatment. I cannot say that, in such a position myself, I would do this way or I would feel that way. I can only say that such decisions are made through various emotional, embodied and social mediations, whether they are “for medical reasons” or not.
While Turkey has expanded the scope of egg freezing for medical reasons, the world’s two giant technology firms have declared that they will be paying for the cost of egg freezing for their female employees, who are thought to be struggling with a “child–career dilemma.” Some applauded this attempt as a gain for “career women.” However, others approach the issue more cautiously. Some feminists say that corporate “incentives” for egg freezing might function as a form of pressure on women to delay childbearing so as to be successful and productive in the workplace — another kind of maternal sacrifice. They call instead for “a wider range of benefits for working women, not just freezing eggs.” [For similar feminist concerns and call for wider social benefits for working women, see Turkish Women’s Labor and Employment Initiative Platform’s press release on the issue.]
What do you think? Should we preserve our eggs as frozen or use them fresh? Or leave our eggs alone but without regret?