Infertility as failure: Egg freezing advertisements and the myth of 'having it all'

Curator's Note

Infertility is a difficult and often sensitive issue for many couples but especially so for women, given the long cultural tradition of conflating ‘correct’ femininity with maternity. In this schema, childless women are often pathologized or repudiated and represented as having somehow failed. The recent proliferation of advertising from reproductive technology companies, such as the above and similar others, which have been reported popping up on women’s Instagram feeds, taps into this narrative of individual failure, as does the move by companies such as Facebook, Apple and Google to offer oocyte cryopreservation (egg freezing) to female employes. These examples clearly access a postfeminist rhetoric of choice that suggests that today's modern young women have benefited from the impact of second-wave feminism and can, indeed, 'have it all' - provided, of course, that they make the right types of culturally-condoned choices, culminating in, what the above ad refers to as, "the ultimate event - having a baby."

While social egg freezing has been heralded in some quarters as an empowering opportunity for career focused or single women, such discourses tend to occlude the fact that it is not only financially expensive but also unlikely to eventuate in a successful pregnancy and birth. Statistics from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART) show the success of clinical pregnancies from egg freezing to be between 4.5-12% in women under the age of 30, a figure which steadily declines as women age. Furthermore, the ethical implications (the commercialization of female reproduction; the potential for employers to exercise coercive, subtle pressures; the continued social and cultural valorizing of motherhood) often remain unarticulated and uninterrogated. Thus the traces of neoliberalism can be seen in advertising by egg freezing companies that present reproductive technologies as an individualized ‘solution’ to overcoming or preventing infertility. This process, however, problematically reinforces a culturally sanctioned, idealized maternal femininity which is based on the pernicious myth that today’s women can ‘have it all.' Indeed, there is little space here to imagine a life without children. Instead, infertility itself is troublingly also constructed as a 'choice' via the suggestion that it is something that modern women can avoid through organisation and careful planning (what the Extend Fertility advertisement refers to as "taking control of their life and their future"). As a result, in this schema, blame can be apportioned to the infertile individual woman, who is haunted now not only by her own loss and grief, but also the spectre of failure. 


The ad identifies something important about how women's lives are popularly conceived - that there is plan already in place of all the things you need to get done. I remember as a teenager talking to two friends who couldn't wait until they had got married and had children because then they would have done the things they were expected to do and THEN they could start doing the things they actually wanted to do.

But, as you point out, the solution they offer is based on entirely false premises. Women undergoing cancer treatment, whose fertility really is on the line, are advised that freezing embryos has a far higher success rate than egg freezing.

There is also a buy in to the idea that genetic material is all you need to make a baby. The image of women as "carriers" of foetuses pervades media coverage of pregnancy. The reality that a woman's body, and the placenta it creates, nourishes and effectively builds a new person from the genetic starter of egg + sperm is rarely acknowledged.

Even if you freeze your eggs, you will still need sperm and a woman's body to make the baby. It's not only eggs that age over time. The eggs from "27 year old spring chicken you" will still have to be gestated by 40 year old you. Or will you? Maybe anoter 27 year old "spring chicken" can be persuaded (or coerced) into carrying the foetus for you?

The relationship between choice and blame you identify is central to the way moral questions are framed in mass culture. Could you have chosen otherwise? If yes, then you are the agent of your own downfall. Making "better choices" is the moral imperative.

Thanks for your comment, Dee. Your point about women as "carriers" is a good one and certainly reflects our childcentric culture where the foetus increasingly takes centre stage. The invisibility of the mother is indeed worrying, and the ethics surrounding such a move also complicates conversations about surrogacy as you point out. (That film I mentioned on your post, Private Life, which I haven't actually seen yet either, tackles some of these questions too.) It seems to me that part of the issue here is around the prevailing conflation of femininity with maternity - we set so much store and sense of a woman's self-worth and identity in her ability to produce children that it almost inevitably becomes a site of grief and failure for those who can't have them. I find it so fascinating in the ad how it accesses this seemingly proto-feminist discourse that you MIGHT want to have a baby but don't have to but all the while is reiterating the cultural imperative to do precisely that. More texts that imagine other ways of 'mothering' and being female that exist separate to reproduction and children would be refreshing. 

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