In May of 1971, an article by Edward Grossman appeared in Atlantic entitled, “The Obsolescent Mother”. He predicted that the day would come when a woman’s two laparoscopy scars will be as commonplace as our smallpox vaccination mark. At age twenty, every female will be superovulated and her eggs will be collected and frozen. This is a particularly good age, according to the author, since at that youthful stage women are less likely to conceive a Down syndrome child or one that has other congenital defects.
Thereafter, whenever a woman wants to become a mother, she will simply have one of her eggs thawed, fertilized in a dish, and gestated in an artificial incubator. The uterus will become vestigial, though the ovaries will remain important. No woman will lose her figure due to childbearing. Grossman predicted that “women who wish to put up with the old style and all that it implies will be free to do so. But it will be a throwback and increasingly rare as the manifest advantages of the artificial womb make it likely to win the competition.”
Now, in the year 2014, Grossman’s predictions have not been quite fulfilled. Nonetheless, according to NBC News, mega-tech companies, Apple and Facebook have agreed to cover the cost of egg freezing for their female employees. Apparently, these two technology giants do not want to lose important female employee hours. Babies can always wait. Apart from the moral issues, which are sundry, has technology advanced to the state where egg freezing, thawing, and subsequent fertilization in a dish is feasible?
The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology estimates that the chance of one frozen egg leading to a live birth for a woman of 38 years is 2-12 percent. This age is significant since the average age of a woman who elects egg freezing is 37.4. In 2011, fewer than ten babies worldwide were believed to have been born from eggs frozen from women 38 and older. After reading 112 articles relevant to the safety and efficacy of egg freezing, Samantha Pfeifer, representing the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, stated that, “Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope.”
The notion that there is a “competition,” as Grossman called it, between a woman’s procreative processes and technology is, itself, quite artificial. Can motherhood be segmented into separate parts? Or is motherhood best understood as a continuity that begins with the loving embrace and continues through conception, gestation, delivery, and lactation? Can various stages of motherhood be exteriorized without something important being lost in the process?
The artificial incubator, together with egg freezing and in vitro fertilization can exteriorize procreation completely. Can a woman be prepared for motherhood when motherhood is artificially prepared for her? Will they be able to cultivate maternal feelings or responsibilities for their children while those children are developing apart from them? What will become of maternal bonding? Will this augur the end of motherhood?
Marge Piercy’s book, Woman on the Edge of Time, is considered a kind of bible for many feminists. Its central message is that only by giving up their power of reproduction can equality between the sexes be achieved. The price, of course, would be the end of motherhood. On a more humane note, sociologist Jean Bethke Elshtain maintains that the “core of human ethics requires “men and women to join together in opposing a headlong race toward social engineering.” “Otherwise,” she warns, “we will face more insidious political domination than we have ever known.” Something may still be said for the “old style”.