Modern technological innovations in the field of human fertility, such as oocyte cryopreservation,1 have been lauded as socially progressive because they free women from the tradition of early marriage and motherhood, and allow them to first advance their education and careers. And in this way science is seen to improve people’s lives. In this paper, I counter-argue that science and technology can bring to some societies harmful long-term consequences that we often overlook in our subjective approval of their immediate benefits.
The primary sentiment in favor of oocyte cryopreservation is that it liberates women from the burdens of traditional marriage and motherhood. Some argue as well that the achievement of individual rights through science and technology necessarily promotes women’s rights in particular. Early marriage and motherhood would seem to deny women the opportunity to seek further education, imprisoning them and their daughters in a medieval cycle of reproduction. Scientific innovations such as cryopreservation removes ancient barriers, opening up education and career opportunities to the betterment of women and society both.
Oocyte cryopreservation in particular affects the traditional family by eliminating the pressure of aging on women who wish to delay having children until later in life. It stops the reproductive biological clock, “giving women who want to wait to be moms, the opportunity to use their own youthful eggs to make a baby when they feel the time is right” (Fertility Research Center, 2010). “The cryopreservation of gametes is an option for those people that, simply because of their working, socioeconomic or personal situation, prefer to postpone the decision of creating a family” (Instituto de Fertilidad, 2012).
Advancing one’s socioeconomic situation is a necessary and laudable ambition for everyone. However, prioritizing career advancement does necessarily relegate the family institution as an end in itself to secondary status, to be pursued later in life, as time, money, and convenience allow. For example, cryopreservation is no longer offered only for medical reasons, but has also been expanded by for-profit family planning services. As a result, there is now competition to turn into customers “ostensibly fertile women who wished to postpone motherhood for various reasons such as educational or career demands, or because they had not yet found a partner” (Rafid-Shkedi and Dolev-Hashilon 291).
Another facet of cryopreservation is that women are being encouraged to routinely freeze their eggs when they are younger (Ian 2011) as a form of insurance. This practice means that more and more women will be attracted by the prospects of pursuing careers at the expense of a traditional marriage and family. Thus a perceived safe and economical new future will gradually spread through all income-levels and classes of women — and men. In tandem with oocyte cryopreservation is the growing availability of donor sperm, (Tucker 2007), guaranteeing control of conception, with or without a marriage partner.
A critical assessment of any technological innovation is necessary, if only to help avoid unintended cultural consequences. Unintended consequences always accompany innovation. This is the argument my paper advances: that an objective analysis of science’s contribution to society would show that it is primarily advantageous in as much as it promotes social progress without blindly jeopardizing the future of important institutions — that such institutions hold in place forces that, if unleashed, can be highly destructive in the long run.
As much as it has contributed to social progress in the past, science and technology themselves are asocial, indeed amoral. While social progress, such as the recognition of women’s rights and promotion of gender equality in education are welcome developments, it should not be pursued at the cost of destroying the social institutions upon which society’s survival and continuity may very well depend. Consequences aren’t value free.
To see what I mean, consider the case of ultrasound. In developed Western nations, ultrasound was a distinct benefit to everyone. This is because in Western nations, there is no bias against female children. But there is a bias against female children in many areas of the world, such as China, India, and Pakistan. As a result, the already present gender imbalance is now a lot worse, portending terrible demographic consequences. In those regions, ultrasound didn’t empower women at all. It empowered the men who control women — their husbands and sons. In other words, it weakened the institution of marriage and family.
And now consider practices such as cryopreservation. Whether of oocytes or sperm, it will once again benefit women (and men) in the West. It will probably do nothing of the kind for women and their families in the East. Now conception will be easier and cheaper than ever. The stigma against abortion will disappear because female fetuses will be terminated long before they reach the abortion stage. Eventually, the gender of a potential fetus will be determinable even before conception by analyzing the genome of the egg and sperm. So the problem boils down to this: in the West, women can live their own lives. In the East and Middle East, they still (in general) cannot. This is what I mean when I say that cryopreservation technology threatens traditional marriage: not by empowering women, but by empowering their further subjugation in traditional societies where they have always been subjugated. This result was unintended.
Science and technology are by no means necessarily hostile to tradition (Weatherford 137). It is historically clear that science can have positive and negative impacts on societies, including long-held traditional institutions. This observation calls for the evaluation of the potential consequences of scientific innovations to a given society in the long run. There is a need for some cultures to aggressively regulate the health sector to ensure that reproduction services like cryopreservation are, at least initially, offered only on medical grounds, such as when a patient, not a customer, is unable to conceive otherwise. Tradition should protect life and its culture.
- Oocyte cryopreservation is a relatively recent technique of freezing and dehydration technology that permits women’s eggs (oocytes) to be safely preserved and stored outside the body for indefinite periods of time. After the oocytes have been thawed and artificially fertilized, they can be implanted as embryos into a woman’s own uterus or a surrogate’s. The same preservation technology of dehydrating and freezing can also be applied to sperm.
Fertility Research Center. Vitrification: Pioneering Fertility Preservation. In Attain Fertility. 2010. January 26, 2012 [IntegraMed America] <http://attainfertility.com/article/vitrification-fertility-preservation>
Instituto de Fertilidad. Fertility Preservation: Oocyte vitrification of eggs and sperm and testicular tissue freezing. 2012. January 26, 2012 < http://fertilidad.clinicasrincon.com/en/fertility-preservation>
Rafid-Shkedi, Shiri, and Dolev-Hashilon, Yael. “Egg freezing for age-related fertility decline: preventive medicine or a further medicalization of reproduction? Analyzing the new Israeli policy.” Journal of Fertility and Sterility, 96 (2). August 2011 < http://lib.kums.ac.ir/documents/10129/44728/291.pdf>
Richards, Sarah, E. “Should You Freeze Your Eggs?” Marie Claire. May 2008. January 26, 2012 < http://www.timefreeze.es/downloads/Should-you-freeze-your-eggs-marieclaire.pdf>
Sample, Ian. “Have Your Eggs Frozen while You’re still Young, Scientists advise Women.” The Guardian. 18 October, 2011. January 26, 2012 < http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/oct/18/eggs-frozen-young-women
Tucker, Michael, J. The Freezing of Human Oocytes (Eggs). Atlanta, Georgia: IVF.com, 2007. January 26, 2012 < http://www.ivf.com/freezing.html>
Weatherford, Jack. Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive? New York, NY: Crown, 1994. Print.