When Facebook and Apple announced that their new health plans include an option to freeze the eggs of female employees, the news was greeted with a mix of cheers and outrage. But freezing women's eggs is just a starting point. The future demands more than that.
Image via Batman and Robin
It pisses me off that we're supposed to think it's amazing that companies are offering women basic health benefits like fertility treatments. Really? Because ladypart crap is supposed to be extra, as if servicing your built-in uterus is the same as ordering extra bacon on your hamburger? Freezing eggs is the very least a company could do to acknowledge that its female employees might need a different healthcare package than its male employees.
Maybe companies should also consider things like genetic counseling and testing for women who could have heritable forms of breast cancer. Or hey, how about specialized healthcare and hormone replacement therapy for women going through menopause? The list could go on and on.
But it's not just about what health care plans should pay for. It's about what science and tech companies are willing to fund as part of their overall missions to innovate. Large companies like Google, for example, are putting money into things like alternative energy and longevity research. Tech billionaire Elon Musk is funding electric cars and space exploration. Microsoft's charities are trying to end world hunger.
These are great investments that could change the world. So why isn't anyone investing in building an artificial womb?
We Don't Fund That
An artificial womb — now there is a technology that could transform everything. No more paying for those frozen eggs or expensive fertility treatments. No more potentially fatal pregnancies and births. No more women terrified that their "biological clocks" are ticking; no more of the pain and discomfort of pregnancy. Women and men would be liberated from having to use (and often abuse) women's bodies to make cute little humans.
If you look back at the twentieth century, it's undeniable that one of the most important technologies to emerge — one that changed social relationships, families, and our understanding of biology — was the birth control pill. As Jonathan Eig argues in a fascinating new book on the topic, the Pill was the culmination of decades of research. It was a major scientific breakthrough. And it transformed the lives of everyone, male and female alike. Women could enjoy sex the way men always had, without fear that one moment of pleasure would have life-altering consequences.
If the Pill brought us into the future, imagine where an artificial womb would take us.
So why are we freezing women's eggs, but not investing in the technologies that would take us beyond this primitive and unsatisfying solution to the underlying problem? And by "underlying problem," I mean the way we still demand that women choose between work and children.
As Nitasha Tiku has already pointed out, there are a lot of disturbing aspects to the "freezing eggs" thing. It's clearly an incentive to make women work through their biological child-bearing years, which would be fine if they would be guaranteed that their frozen eggs could bloom into babies after their stock vested. But the whole process of harvesting, freezing and implanting eggs is still really iffy. A woman might give her life to Apple, delaying that baby, and find out in her mid-40s that her eggs aren't going to work anyway.
So freezing eggs doesn't really solve the problem. Artificial wombs would be a better technical fix, and probably lead to many amazing discoveries during the development phase. But even the iWomb will leave us with the same damn conundrum. Because really, the issue isn't pregnancy at all. It's childcare.
What Women Really Want
They call childbirth "labor," but really the term should be applied to everything that comes after.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, few cultures in the world admit that childcare is a job. A demanding, soul-crushing, time-consuming job that women are supposed to do without compensation or support from their workplace. I'm not saying it isn't also a complete joy to see children growing up — there are many rewards to childrearing, just as there are rewards at any job. But without support at work, it's hard to be a great parent and a great software developer at the same time.
That's why I think women should be demanding something more than frozen eggs and artificial wombs. We should be demanding that our workplaces provide childcare during working hours. I'm not talking about Google's super-elite, super-expensive on-site preschool bullshit. I'm talking about CHILD CARE FOR EVERY WOMAN AT EVERY COMPANY. Sorry to go caps lock on you, but this solution to the work/child problem is so simple and so effective that I'd like to see it emblazoned across the sky.
I know it sounds way too low-tech to be futuristic, but I'm sure we can write some apps to implement it, if that makes you feel better. It's time we realize that women are struggling to choose between work and motherhood because motherhood is a job. And if companies want to retain their female workers, they need to invest in the ultimate innovation: childcare in the workplace.
If you look at it from this perspective, Apple and Facebook's egg-freezing policy starts to sound a lot like a guy who just wants to get laid at a party. It's weirdly focused on the fertilization part, and not the part that matters. Helping women get pregnant is nice, but how about sticking around for the truly difficult stuff? How about creating a health care plan that helps women rear their children too?
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and this is her column. She's the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter, or email her.