Updated on October 16 at 11:25 am.
I spent last Thursday on the 15th floor of a fertility clinic with a dozen women. It was a free seminar on egg freezing, and I listened, wide-eyed, as a female physician described how, by the time a woman reaches puberty, her egg count will already be reduced by half. The women in the room had presumably come for the same reason as I had – we were single, in our 30s and 40s, and wanted to know our options – and yet we might as well have been entering a brothel. We didn’t make eye contact. We looked straight ahead. It was as if each of us now knew the other’s big secret: the fertility elephant in the room.
Women talk about sex, their vibrators, their orgasms – but a woman’s fertility, and wanting to preserve it, seems to be the last taboo. There’s something about the mere idea of a healthy single female freezing her eggs that seems to play into every last trope: the desperate woman, on the prowl for a baby daddy. The woman who has failed the one true test of her femininity: her ability to reproduce. The hard-headed careerist who is wiling to pay to put off the ticking of her biological clock. That or – god forbid – the women who ends up single, childless and alone.
But that may be changing, in part thanks to an unlikely patron saint: the Man.
This week, Facebook and Apple acknowledged publicly for the first time that they are or will pay for elective egg freezing for female employees, a process by which women surgically preserve healthy eggs on ice until they’re ready to become parents, at which point they begin the process of in vitro fertilization. Facebook, which told NBC News it has had the policy in place since the start of the year, will cover up to $20,000 under its “lifetime surrogacy reimbursement” program under Aetna (a typical cost of the procedure is around $10,000 fee, plus annual storage fees.) Apple will begin coverage in 2015.
There are other companies who cover the procedure, too: Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase tell TIME that their coverage includes preventative freezing. According to interviews with employees, Microsoft includes some preventative coverage, too. And sources say Google is weighing the coverage option for 2015.
The revelations appeared to unleash more immediate questions than they answered: Were these companies simply putting even more pressure on women to keep working and put their personal lives on the back burner? Was it a narrow effort by prosperous tech companies to recruit , or retain, female talent in an industry whose gender breakdown remains dismal? Or was it a step toward actually legitimizing the procedure, and leveling the playing field for women? Could the move – and the public nature of it — destigmatize the practice for good?
It’s been two years since the American Society of Reproductive Medicine lifted the “experimental” label from egg freezing –– a procedure initially created to help patients undergoing chemotherapy — leading to a surge in demand. Yet because the non-experimental technology is so new, researchers say it’s too soon to give real qualitative efficacy data. (While doctors typically recommend women freeze at least 18 eggs — which often requires two rounds of the procedure – there’s no guarantee that the eggs will lead to successful pregnancy when they are implanted via IVF years later.)
Nonetheless, the very idea that there might be a way for women to build their careers and their personal lives on a timetable of their own choice — not dictated by their biology — is so intriguing that single women are filling informational seasions at clinics and holding egg freezing “parties” to hear about it. They are flocking to financing services like Eggbanxx, which reports it is fielding more than 60 inquiries a week. And on email lists and at dinner parties, women trade egg freezing tips like recipe binders: which insurers cover what, the right terminology to use when asking for it, side effects of hormone injections that stimulate egg production and the outpatient procedure one most go through to retrieve the eggs.
Sometimes, they’re talking about careers: the relief of knowing that – with your eggs on ice – there is simply more flexibility around when to make the decision to give birth. But more often, they’re talking about dating: the “huge weight lifted off your shoulders,” as one single 32-year-old friend described it, knowing that you no longer have assess every potential prospect as a future husband and father.
For women of a certain age, reared with the reliability of birth control, this could, as the technology improves, be our generation’s Pill — a way to circumvent a biological glass ceiling that, even as we make social and professional progress, does not budge. Women today have autonomy – and choice – over virtually every aspect of their lives: marriage, birth control, income, work. And yet our biology is the one thing we can’t control.
“It’s almost as if evolution hasn’t kept up with feminism,” says a friend, a 34-year-old Facebook employee who underwent the procedure using the new policy this year. “But I think that, like with anything, the culture takes a while to catch up. And sometimes it takes a few big people to come out and say, ‘We’re doing this’ to really change things.”
From a practical standpoint, covering elective egg freezing makes sense. It’s an economic issue that could help companies, especially tech companies, attract women and correct a notorious gender imbalance. “Personally – and confidentially – this made me immediately look at Facebook jobs again,” a 37-year-old marketing executive who worked at both Facebook and Google tells me. “I’m looking to control my career and choices around motherhood on my terms, and a company that would allow me to do so — and provide financial support for those choices — is one I’d willingly return to.”
It’s a social issue, against a backdrop that men and women are waiting longer than ever to tie the knot, and there are now more single people in this country than at any other moment in history. (No, you’re not some kind of failure because you haven’t met someone and reproduced by 35. You’re just…. well, normal.)
And for businesses, of course, it’s a financial issue too. As the Lancet put it in a medical paper earlier this month, covering egg freezing as a preventative measure could save businesses from having to pay for more expensive infertility treatments down the line – a benefit that is already mandated in 15 states. As Dr. Elizabeth Fino, a fertility specialist at New York University, explains it: with all the money we spend on IVF each year, and multiple cycles of it, why wouldn’t healthcare companies jump on this as a way to save? And while success rates for IVF procedures vary significantly by individual, and are often low, using younger eggs can increase the chances of pregnancy.
“Companies with good insurance packages have been paying for IVF for a long time. Why should egg freezing be any different?” says Ruthie Ackerman, a 37-year-old digital strategist who had her egg freezing procedure covered through her husband’s insurance.
Egg freezing is also, of course, an issue of equality: a potential solution to the so-called myth of opting out. An equalizer among both gender – men don’t usually worry about their sperm going bad, or at least not with quite the same intensity or cost – and class (the procedure has typically only been available for those who could afford it). The way egg freezing has worked so far, many women don’t necessarily return to retrieve their eggs. Still others get pregnant naturally. And so, even though it’s too soon to say how successful the procedure down the line will be — for women who return, thaw, and begin the process of IVF — it’s almost like an insurance policy. An egalitarian “peace of mind.”
“I have insurance policies in every other area of my life: my condo, my car, work insurance,” says another friend, another employee of one of these firms, another woman who doesn’t want to be named, but for whom hopefully this will soon no longer be an issue. She points to a recent survey, published in the in the journal Fertility and Sterility, which found that a majority of patients who froze their eggs reported feeling “empowered.” “This is my body, and arguably the most important thing that you could ever have in your life,” she continues. “Why wouldn’t I at least protect that asset?”
And if your boss is offering it up to you for free, what do you have to lose?
Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at Time.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. She writes regularly for the New York Times and is a contributing editor for special projects for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s nonprofit, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.