We read in Genesis that God created a man and a woman. Listen as Adam speaks of Eve: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman for she was taken out of Man.” (Gn 2:23)
Since the beginning there has never been any intimation that Woman was a lesser creature. Adam and Eve were distinct in their genders but equal in their dignity. Both were fully created in the image of God.
Unfortunately, the current culture rejects this equality and views the fullness of femininity as a curse. In order to succeed women are pushed to reject their own biology and try to make themselves more like men. Nowhere is this more evident than the modern approach to fertility and maternity.
For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation claims it is working to empower women and fighting maternal mortality. Yet their solution is to invest over one billion dollars into contraceptives for sub-Saharan Africa. The clear implication is that these women cannot thrive with their fertility intact. Instead of “fixing” the women, why not address root causes of mortality such as poorly trained medical personnel, inadequate medical facilities, lack of clean water, and diminished educational opportunities for women? Why does the Gates Foundation instead choose to attack natural female biology and introduce toxic contraceptives that double the risk of HIV transmission and increase the risk of breast cancer? Introducing these health risks in an area that is already suffering from an inadequate medical infrastructure is not an empowering proposition.
A similar strategy is seen in the United States with the HHS contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Those supporting this mandate think a woman’s fertility is so detrimental to her well-being and economic success that contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization must be made available free of charge to all women, even if such availability tramples the religious liberty of others.
Of course without fertility, there can be no maternity. The noble vocation of motherhood is continuously depicted as undesirable by our contraceptive culture. In a recent speech in Rhode Island, President Barack Obama was arguing for increased federal funding of childcare facilities. He lamented the decision of some women to stay at home with their children saying, “That’s not a choice we want Americans to make.” His utilitarian philosophy finds no value in women who forgo economic gain to care for their own children instead of continuing to be economically productive and warehousing their children in government-funded daycare facilities.
In the latest round of belittling motherhood, information technology giants like Facebook and Apple are now offering to cover the cost of freezing the eggs of their female employees so these women can focus on their careers and delay having children. At first blush this looks like a benefit to women because it provides a choice. In truth, it is an overt statement that motherhood is a luxury that should not interfere with the professional aspirations of women, and one can anticipate such an option evolving into an expectation: After all, with the availability of frozen eggs, sperm donors, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and surrogate wombs, women can contract out all the details of childbearing and never miss a day at the office.
The first problem with this approach is that is based on the false premise that freezing eggs and using them later is a simple and effective way to delay childbearing. Women are given the false hope that they can put off having children indefinitely. The reality is that both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society of Reproductive Medicine discourage the use of egg freezing for the sole purpose of delaying motherhood. The rate of a successful live birth from a previously frozen egg is less than 25% for a woman who is thirty and less than 10% for a woman who is forty.
In addition to the risk of failure to achieve pregnancy, there are significant health risks associated with the process of retrieving eggs. Women have to undergo weeks of hormone injections to stimulate the ovaries to produce the more than usual one-per-month mature egg. Harvesting the eggs requires a surgical procedure and can cause injury to pelvic structures like the bladder, bowel, and blood vessels. Exposure to the stimulating hormones has been known to cause subsequent infertility and early menopause.
The most dangerous health risk is the possibility of Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS) in response to the hormone injections. This is not an uncommon side effect and its severity can range from moderate abdominal pain to severe respiratory symptoms, kidney failure, and even death.
What is as significant as the health risks of egg freezing is the shift in the parenting paradigm that accompanies all artificial reproductive technologies including egg freezing with subsequent IVF. Becoming a parent, whether mother or father, is supposed to be a generous act of self-giving. When a man and a woman open themselves to the gift of a new life through the marital act they affirm their openness to the vocation of parenthood. They offer themselves for the benefit of their child.
In contrast, the use of artificial reproductive technologies like IVF allows adults to purchase a child for their own enjoyment and benefit. The various embryos that are conceived in the lab are sorted and examined for both positive and negative traits so that a woman can order her child with all the right features in the same way she orders her new car or computer. Such technology dehumanizes children and treats them like just another commodity.
But becoming a mother is not an avocation you take up when you have a little extra time at work. It is one of the noblest of vocations and a privilege to be cherished. There is no level of professional success that can compensate for a squandered opportunity to embrace motherhood. It is an affront to authentic feminism to suggest that maternity is a burden to be delayed as long as possible if not avoided altogether. Fecundity does not make women less valuable than men. Those who want to truly empower women should stop attacking female fertility and instead celebrate a woman’s unique ability to bring forth and nurture new life.