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Opinion: Facebook and Apple will pay to freeze employees’ eggs. But is this really a work perk?

USC Fertility laboratory director Mary Francis inspects human eggs frozen with liquid nitrogen.
USC Fertility laboratory director Mary Francis inspects human eggs frozen with liquid nitrogen.
(Los Angeles Times)

It’s generous indeed for Facebook and Apple to extend their benefits to include egg freezing for women who want to put off child-bearing. And it might be exactly what some women want. But it’s also a sign of how poorly the U.S. workplace has responded to the needs of families.

Under the new benefits, women will receive up to $20,000 to have their eggs frozen for possible later implantation. Egg freezing is no longer considered an experimental procedure, but neither is it encouraged by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. Success rates in clinical trials were very good, but only a few randomized trials had been completed as of 2012, and according to an article in Scientific American, observation reports suggest that the picture isn’t as rosy as the studies suggest so far.

It’s not a difficult procedure to harvest eggs, but it’s not like donating sperm for freezing. Hormones are taken, and hospitalization is generally required.

Still, an increasing number of women are expected to want this option. The question is whether they want it because that’s their preference in how their lives unfold, or whether they, as well as men, feel that there is little option if they want to be parents, but also want to succeed at their jobs.

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The American workplace, especially the realm of high-powered jobs, is particularly hostile to the family. Longer work hours are demanded, weekends are consumed and paid vacations are much shorter than in many other developed nations. Meanwhile, high-quality, affordable childcare is extremely hard to find. And even good childcare centers have their own problems, such as increased exposure to colds and other illnesses for the children and thus the whole family.

The war between stay-at-home moms and those who head to out-of-home jobs has never managed a cease-fire, but should never have been necessary in the first place. There’s no getting around the fact that the hours demanded from employees have seriously eroded the quality of our lives in many ways. We commonly eat overly processed foods because they’re faster and more convenient than cooking whole foods; who has energy for chopping vegetables and roasting meats after a 12-hour day? We get less exercise and much less time for relaxation and recreation.

Of course, Facebook and Apple didn’t create this culture. They’re just offering another benefit to those who choose it, and they already offer many helpful and unusual benefits intended to foster healthier and happier conditions. Some worry about a tacit message to women that they had better want the egg freezing if it’s offered, that they will look bad to management if they don’t focus entirely on their careers right now and put off child-rearing. But that’s an imbalanced way of looking at it; we don’t see companies that offer free or low-cost, on-site childcare being accused of delivering an unspoken message that women had better have children right away for the sake of their careers.

Still, the perk in the U.S. workplace that most women and men can’t get is the flexibility to work fewer hours or more nontraditional hours to help fit their work lives and family lives together, without sacrificing their ability to get ahead. That’s not to mention the more basic benefit unavailable in many workplaces of adequate family leave time for when parents are needed at home. We’d be a healthier, happier and better-working nation if those were common.

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The response might be that people have to choose between putting in a full-bore effort at work, or being more family oriented. But studies tend to find that flextime, for example, leads to higher productivity, stronger loyalty to the employer and, in fact, more work hours devoted to the job. That’s especially true when employees get to work from home at least some of the time.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion


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