Facebook and Apple are set to offer free egg freezing to female employees struggling to balance a high-powered career with the notion of parental commitments.
The controversial benefit has come about as part of "perks arms race" between leading Silicon Valley companies seeking to recruit more women across all levels of management, NBC News reports.
Facebook already has a free egg freezing clause worth up to $20,000 (£12,500) in place under its surrogacy benefit for employees, a spokesperson for the social media site confirmed to NBC News. Apple will begin running a similar value programme in January, under its listed fertility benefits.
They are the first major companies to offer that benefit for non-medical reasons in the US, where egg freezing is a notoriously expensive process of around $10,000 (£6,300) per procedure with added annual costs for storage.
No such equivalent programme exists in the UK, where the cost of egg collection, freezing, storage for three years and thawing at Nottingham-based fertility clinic CARE is £3,050.
Women working for Facebook in the US have already begun taking advantage of the scheme, which Philip Chenette, a fertility specialist in San Francisco, describes as a "payment" for their commitment in the workplace.
"Having a high-powered career and children is still a very hard thing to do,” egg-freezing advocate Brigitte Adams, founder of the patient forum Eggsurance.com, told NBC. She said that by offering such a benefit, Apple and Facebook were helping support women carve out the life that they want.
Both companies already offer a comprehensive and generous package of fertility, childcare and adoption benefits targeted at wannabe parents.
Facebook, whose COO Sheryl Sandberg has long campaigned for the workplace to be an equal playing field for women, gives new parents $4,000 (£2,500) in "baby cash" to spend however they like.
For some campaigners, egg-freezing technology is now a key part of bringing equality to women in the workplace and a means of eliminating the "ticking biological clock" that can put pressure on career women of childbearing age.
New York-based gynecologist Dr. Suzanne LaJoie is one such woman. After suffering a break-up in her mid-30s, she decided to get her eggs frozen at the age of 37.
“I just wanted to take the pressure off,” she told Business Week. “Men don’t have a biological clock, and I felt like it leveled the playing field a bit.”
By her early 40s, she had met a partner and made the decision to thaw her eggs to have a child. "If I’d had kids when I was a resident, I wouldn’t have been able to spend any time with them - I was working a gazillion hours a week,” she says. "Now I can bring my 5-year-old to kindergarten every day."
Sarah Elizabeth Richards, who wrote a book about her egg freezing experience, Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It, agrees. She spent $50,000 (£31,000) freezing several rounds of eggs in 2006 to 2008 and now aged 43, plans to use them soon.
"You feel bad about yourself, like you’re the odd man out, and somehow you’ve messed up on your path,” she says. “By freezing, you’ve done something about it. You’re walking taller; your head is held higher. And that can pay off in both your work and romantic lives. Egg freezing gives you the gift of time to start a family, but it’s also, like, here’s how many years I actually have left for my other goals - what can I do with them?”
But critics have raised ethical questions about the concept of an egg freezing perk. The very fact that it is a benefit may seem to put implicit pressure on female employees to delay their plans for a family.
“Would potential female associates welcome this option knowing that they can work hard early on and still reproduce, if they so desire, later on?” asks Glenn Cohen, co-director of Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, in a blog post last year (via NBC). "Or would they take this as a signal that the firm thinks that working there as an associate and pregnancy are incompatible?"
The issue is still some way off affecting employees in the UK, where benefits - medical or otherwise - take a very different structure to companies in the US.
Yet even here, egg freezing is becoming a more topical issue for women looking to have it all. Writing in the Lancet medical journal earlier this month, fertility experts said all women in the UK should have the chance to freeze their eggs or ovarian tissue in their 20s or early 30s, to avoid fertility problems in later life and to reduce the costs of IVF treatment.
So far in Britain, just 20 babies have yet been born from frozen eggs according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Around 18,000 eggs had been stored in the UK in total.
The opportunity to freeze eggs is particularly important to women with cancer, as it allows them to store eggs and ovarian tissue prior to chemotherapy.
But the London Women's Clinic notes that egg freezing is now being driven by social reasons too. "Egg freezing is becoming of increasing interest to a number of women who may not be in a secure relationship and choose to put a few eggs in storage for when, and if, the right man comes along," its website says.
Dr Simon Fishel at CARE fertility clinics in Nottingham says awareness of the procedure is still an issue.
“A lot of the young professional women probably don’t realise it is there," he says. "The majority probably think it is still going to cost me and I probably won’t need it."
What do you think? Is the fact that US companies are starting to offer free egg freezing to their employees a good or a bad thing? Would you be interested in having your eggs frozen yourself? Let us know @stylistmagazine or in the comments below.
Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images