Why women need a workplace revolution

Reproductive technology will never provide the answer to inequality.

QUESTION: What do frozen eggs and ovaries, donor eggs, and hormone replacement therapy have in common?

Answer: They have all helped women overcome age-related infertility or “beat” their biological clocks – or may be used to do so in the future.

Julian Savulescu, the director of the Murdoch Institute’s ethics unit, contends that despite the risks to women of the drugs used in many infertility treatments, fertile women have a right of access to reproductive advances such as egg freezing. In giving women the same choices as men – to be educated, to work and to have children at the time of their choosing – Savulescu argues that egg freezing is potentially the most liberating reproductive advance since the introduction of the contraceptive pill.

Jennifer Parks, in the prestigious feminist journal Hypatia, contends that infertility treatments that enable older and even post-menopausal women to have children may be the only way for women to overcome the social inequities that force women – but not men – to “choose” between career and motherhood.

In Victoria, only infertile couples are allowed access to infertility treatments such as IVF. However, the use by fertile women of less ethically contentious procedures such as egg and ovary freezing, is not technically prohibited. More importantly, both Melbourne IVF and the Reproductive Biology Unit at the Royal Women’s are willing to speak to any woman who wishes to bank her eggs for future use.

Monash IVF’s medical director, Gab Kovacs, has no personal objections to fertile women having access to such technologies to preserve their fertility – as long as they are aware of the experimental nature of the technology, and the associated health risks.

Both Monash and Melbourne IVF assist women approaching or beyond menopause to become mothers using donor eggs and HRT. Melbourne IVF routinely treats women up to the age of 48, while Monash is unconcerned about age until a woman turns 45.

But while Melbourne IVF’s clinical chairman, John McBain, seeks to discourage women suffering empty-nest syndrome from using the technology in the hope of having another baby, he is sympathetic to women whose efforts to maintain or advance in their job prohibited them from partnering and/or procreating in their more fertile years. And McBain isn’t alone in his sympathetic desire to help post-menopausal women attain motherhood. Last year, Adelaide’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital helped a 53-year-old woman give birth to triplets.

It is not hard to see why some ethicists, infertility treatment experts and women see infertility treatment as their best hope of obtaining the same educational, employment and parenting opportunities as have long been enjoyed by men. To access them, a woman doesn’t need to change the world, she just needs money. For some women, such treatments may be seen as a way to quietly bypass a system that forces them to confront their most demanding career hurdles at the same times as they confront their reproductive shelf-life.

But, unfortunately, there are a number of problems with such individual attempts to beat the system. The most important one, according to McBain and Kovacs, is the experimental nature of interventions such as egg and ovary freezing. Egg freezing has an extremely low success rate. McBain worries that women will squander their natural fertility because media reports about new reproductive technologies give them a false sense of security about their prospects of using such technology to achieve a mature-age pregnancy in the future.

In addition, infertility treatment is time-consuming, expensive and invasive – and so may pose risks to women’s health. While a large longitudinal study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Mothers’ and Children’s Health at La Trobe University suggests there is no higher incidence of cancer among women in the short and medium term, we cannot yet know whether such promising findings will continue indefinitely.

Fertility experts agree that the best strategy for women who want children is to attempt pregnancy before or around the age of 30. As a society, we can approach such well-meaning advice in two ways: we can ignore it, and enable women with the financial means to attempt their own private solutions to age-related childlessness by using these treatments; or we can restructure the way that we work.

As numerous recent studies of the Australian workplace have concluded, corporate values continue to suppose that employees are free from family and other non-workplace commitments.

Moreover, education patterns ensure that both women and men are in their peak childbearing years at precisely the same time as they are under most pressure to prove themselves and to advance at work.

Changes to the way we work and the creation of pro-family social policies that support all families with children (not just those in which the woman doesn’t work) are two critical steps to ensuring women are truly free to choose when and whether they will have children.