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Frozen: Biology Takes a Backseat to Business 

Tuesday, Nov 11 2014

The Bay Area's cradle of future civilizations is a fifth-floor office suite in a pristine waterfront building, where a vase of white orchids sits primly on the reception desk and sconce lights illuminate blond wood cabinets. The color scheme — cream walls, ivory flowers, soft landscape paintings — doesn't exactly scream "fertility" (there are no sumptuous fruit paintings or mandalas). Yet it seems appropriate for a clinic where doctors cultivate embryos in petri dishes, removing more than just the procreative part of the process.

Pacific Fertility Center of San Francisco has been around since 1999, but only in recent years has it really entered public consciousness. That's partly the result of an ad campaign to court the city's thirtysomething working women, many of whom receive a steady stream of reminders, on every social media channel, that "peak fertility is rapidly declining." But the center's visibility is also the result of fortuitous cultural trends.

"San Francisco is a city with a lot of young, single professionals," says Marcelle Cedars, director of the UCSF Center for Reproductive Health. "They have the means, and they're going to delay child-bearing because of career decisions or life issues. Those are the ones for whom this may have the most attraction."

Add to that an extra push from Facebook and Apple, which are offering to pay up to $20,000 for female employees to freeze their eggs so they won't be distracted from their jobs by mere biology.

This technology, called "social freezing," has ballooned in popularity over the last few years, even though most insurance carriers won't cover it. Reproductive specialists say they've seen a tide of younger women come through their doors; San Ramon-based doctor Aimee Eyvazzadeh now organizes "egg freezing parties" to tout her services to women throughout the Bay Area.

"The problem is that we're biologically designed to have kids in our twenties, and those are prime working years," Pacific Fertility Center doctor Philip E. Chenette explains. He believes it's only fair for tech companies to step up to the plate, since they're benefiting from delayed reproduction.

And, Chenette adds, the costs mount for a woman as she closes in on middle age. "Best guess, around age 35, the ratio of egg to healthy embryo is around 8 to 1," he says. "When you get up to age 40, that ratio is probably about 20 to 1."

The good news, he and Cedars note, is that egg-fertilization technology is advancing rapidly. It's now easier to safely thaw eggs after they're frozen, and it's also possible to screen for chromosomal abnormalities at the moment those eggs are fertilized, which helps pre-empt multiple pregnancies, Down Syndrome, or other issues more common when older women try to conceive.

That's enabling and liberating for women, particularly those who'd rather ascend the ladder than wait around for Mr. Right — or, for that matter, those who'd rather purchase Mr. Right from a sperm bank. Lee-Chuan Kao, who runs a reproductive clinic in Pacific Heights, says he sees a lot of lesbian couples or single women who've decided to start families by themselves.

But there's a cynical read to these developments, too. When companies fund these $20,000 egg-freezing treatments, they also raise the social pressure for women employees to work through their child-bearing years. Maybe that's striver culture taking on the mantle of feminism, or maybe it's striver culture being efficiency-minded and ruthless.

Or maybe that's just the new paradigm. Our grandmothers didn't have a lot of career and family-planning options. And they couldn't make a kid in a dish, or save it for later.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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