Recently, an Ivy League egg donor and We are Egg Donors member attended one of the much-buzzed-about egg freezing “parties” held by EggBanxx at the Harvard Club of New York City. (And by “parties,” I mean a loosely factual marketing event about commercial egg freezing — complete with free booze.) Here’s her trip report. This is the first installment of our Egg Freezing series.
We are Egg Donors: What was your overall impression of the event?
HOSHIKO: The event was slickly produced in a way that made it clear that it was a marketing event. They’d clearly targeted professionalized, “upscale” women, who are hardly naive about such pitches, and are perhaps less likely to object to an event as a form of marketing. I am in a specialized profession, but am critical of such tactics, certainly in the case of the self-promotion of a money-lender with its profit at stake in a medical and bioethical issue.
I attended out of curiosity about how egg freezing would be pitched, coupled with curiosity about the atmosphere of the Harvard Club – I attended another Ivy League institution, and experiencing the environment itself satisfied my curiosity. Eggbanxx did well in choosing this clubby, aspirational venue. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a table of friendly representatives from Eggbanxx who provided me with a ballpoint pen, notepad, and abundant flyers and brochures detailing Eggbanxx’ services.
After getting past the greeters from Eggbanxx, my first impression was being startled and appalled by the many intrusive event photographers.
There had been no prior warning in any emails or invitations, nor were there signs posted before we entered the room, that we would be aggressively documented. Egg freezing concerns a person’s finances and reproductive health. I asked the photographers individually to avoid including me in their shots. Because I attended the event mostly out of curiosity, rather than anxiety about my reproductive future, I stayed.
If I had genuinely urgent reproductive concerns that required privacy and dignity, I absolutely would have left on the spot.
All the food and drink was of decent quality, and drinking liberally was encouraged with a signature cocktail. They clearly wanted us to mingle with each other, the physicians, and the Eggbanxx representatives milling about the room. One of the first people who approached me, however, was not a rep, but a reporter from the New York Times.
The attendees were mostly women who appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, several with their partners. The audience was ethnically diverse.
My overall impression is that the event was well-produced, but left many questions unanswered. They were unanswered for me, as someone who is already familiar with the medication and retrieval process – as someone who came in very well informed about what questions should have been answered.
WAED: The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) lifted the “experimental” label from egg freezing only two years ago, noting that they do not endorse healthy women to freeze their eggs for future use. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) also do notendorse egg freezing “for the sole purpose of circumventing reproductive aging in healthy women,” according to The New Republic.
Yet egg freezing is still aggressively marketed as an elective procedure to “freeze the clock,” so to speak. Feminist/fempowerment language is often used to prey on women’s insecurities, much like the plastic surgery industry. What are your thoughts on this?
HOSHIKO: I’d say that Eggbanxx are opportunistic. They are deliberately marketing an anxiety and desperation about infertility, because their business model is to monetize the debt that hopeful parents are willing to assume.
Generally, I support individuals’ autonomy in decision-making concerning our bodies, including egg freezing.
WAED: I agree with that. Women are perfectly capable of making informed choices over their own bodies, informed being the operative word. Given that the American fertility industry is unregulated, standards of informed consent leave a lot to be desired.
HOSHIKO: I agree with that. Part of why the fertility industry concerns me is that people going into it as patients or consumers are not typically given enough information to cover the grounds of informed consent by their healthcare providers, creditors, agencies, or other third parties who stand to monetize their participation. I had to do a lot of self-education, and that was only possible in the past few years as egg donors, IVF recipients, surrogates, and others have begun coming forward to share their knowledge and experiences.
Furthermore, Eggbanxx’ promotional efforts concerning the virtues of egg freezing never address the reasons that anyone feels the pressure of egg freezing in the first place. The corporatized girl-power language preys on our vulnerability to a professional culture that disregards the human body and reproductive life cycle. Corporations ask parents to work through their childbearing years, rather than properly structuring workplaces to suit the basics of human life.
Overall, I think parents need to organize around equitable workplace policies such as extended, paid parental leave, flex time, and affordable health and child care, for all employees. Eggbanxx’ money lending services, and egg freezing and IVF, benefit a comparatively privileged sliver of the workforce – those with a 630 and up credit score, those who don’t have blue collar jobs where they can’t get away for a doctor’s appointment, those who can afford the equivalent of a mortgage in egg storage fees every month. That is not what my particular interpretation of feminism looks like.
WAED: There’s a great Huffington Post piece about exactly this. It states that the US is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave. “What we need are family-friendly workplace policies, not giveaways that will encourage women to undergo invasive procedures in order to squeeze out more work for their beloved company under the guise of “empowerment.”
WAED: What were some interesting things you noticed about the event?
HOSHIKO: I was surprised to leave the event still feeling that the role of Eggbanxx itself as a company is unclear, even though the event existed to promote them. What I inferred is that Eggbanxx is a creditor, earning interest on the loans they provide, and (hypothetically? possibly?) earning money as a consultant or promotional arm of their affiliated physicians in some way. They provide funding to people who want to freeze eggs, and have a network of recommended fertility centers and MDs.
I don’t know if Eggbanxx also finances the monthly storage payments for frozen eggs. Once eggs are frozen, there are regular monthly payments. These go on until one has their IVF procedure, or decides to re-donate or destroy the eggs. This was not clarified very well, and the audience had to dig it out of them.
Over the panel discussion, I observed a stark difference between the two women MDs on the panel, and the male MD.
The women took the audience’s questions seriously and had a respectful demeanor. For example, when an audience member asked about lifestyle choices’ affect on fertility, the women MDs both noted that it never hurts to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle, but only smoking is known to reduce fertility rates so they shouldn’t worry too much about maintaining a perfect diet or exercise regimen.
Conversely, the male MD rolled his eyes at most of the audience’s questions, and made bombastic statements such as “I can get someone pregnant at sixty years old if I want to.” It reflects poorly upon Eggbanxx that someone with this risk-taking and condescending attitude toward women’s health concerns was invited to participate.
If Eggbanxx are going to target high-powered businesspeople who are presumably taking charge of our lives (or at least who aspire to this), they can’t bring in people who interact with us as if we are clueless little children! It’s a huge red flag for me when a marketing-heavy business essentially fails at marketing. Where else are they sloppy?
WAED: As an egg donor, how do you feel that the egg harvesting procedure was described as a marketing pitch versus your experience of it?
HOSHIKO: I felt they were accurate about what happens up to the point of the surgical retrieval, but that does not go far enough. The MDs and the Eggbanxx representative did not volunteer information about health risks up front.
When asked by audience members, the MDs on the panel were forthright about the short-term risks of egg freezing: a reaction to the hormones or medication, OHSS, the financial and emotional risk that no child will ever result from the process, and complications of anesthesia and surgery.
Neither Eggbanxx nor their MDs of choice addressed the long-term health and personal risks of egg freezing at all.
They did not mention that the long-term effects of the egg collection and future IVF procedures are now linked to higher instances of ovarian and breast cancers in women who have a family history of these cancers, nor that there is substantial anecdotal evidence to suggest that repeated manipulation of egg production lowers fertility over time. They did not clarify that the long term effects are completely unknown because the protocols are new enough that few, if any, women have had time to grow old after having them.
I was concerned about the description of egg freezing as an “insurance policy,” when each of the MDs emphasized that a) you may not need the frozen eggs because you may end up having a child naturally before they are needed, and b) if you do try to use them, they may not work. The male MD said that “If the frozen eggs don’t work, it’s not because they were frozen, it’s because you have fertility problems.” How is that an insurance policy exactly? With insurance, you are guaranteed coverage. I guess it’s sort of like, just because you have health insurance doesn’t mean you will be cured…?
They emphasized that the younger you are, the better your chances that egg freezing will result in a viable pregnancy. Yet the longer the eggs are frozen, the more questionable the outcome. One doctor said that with his “new” freezing procedure, he has data for eggs that have produced successful live births that have been frozen for 3 years. But of course he has no data on eggs frozen longer than 3 years because he invented the procedure 3 years ago, though hypothetically they could last indefinitely. So you’re basically stuck between starting young while your eggs are more viable yet assuming the risk of a longer freeze time, versus freezing your eggs later in life when they may not be as healthy but might benefit from a shorter freeze duration. He did not provide data about his procedures, nor let us know where we could verify the outcomes.
Eggbanxx and the presenting physicians addressed only a fraction of the risks – the short-term ones. The audience members didn’t know what questions to ask in order to address the long-term risks.
I almost felt as if I had a responsibility to be more vocal, and to ask the questions about long-term risks in front of the audience. However, I chose to address the questions of long-term risks generally, with the added factor of multiple rounds of stimulation, individually with one of the MDs during the post-panel networking reception. She agreed that the extremely long term health risks are not known, but said that she felt comfortable advising a maximum of 6 rounds of stimulation and egg collection, as this is recommended by ASRM – and that is all there is to go by at this moment in time. To the best of my knowledge, this is an honest answer, but I had to be aggressive about getting those exact words out of the doctor.
I believe that fertility providers should be far more proactive about clarifying this matter.
Right now, doctors tend to minimize the risks because they’re unknown, but I think it should be the opposite – the risks should be emphasized until we have better answers. That would be the most responsible, ethical way of handling the unknown.
WAED: Thanks for speaking with us.
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Is Freezing Your Eggs Dangerous? A Primer (via The New Republic)
The Sobering Facts of Egg Freezing That Nobody’s Talking About (via Wired)
Breaking the Ice: Young Feminist Scholars of Reproductive Politics Reflect on Egg Freezing (via The International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics)