False promise, unnatural transgression or pragmatic solution? The reproductive technology of egg freezing, and its representation in public debates, is characterised by a tension between the simultaneous rejection and invocation of future infertility. Lucy van de Wiel's doctoral research analyses cultural expressions of egg freezing to offer insights into contemporary gender-specific conceptualisations of ageing and fertility. She will be defending her doctoral thesis on Friday, 6 November at the University of Amsterdam (UvA).
In the Netherlands, women have been allowed to freeze their eggs since 2011. The introduction of this reproductive technology is not only a medical issue, but also a cultural phenomenon that has become the focus of widespread media attention, political debate and ethical discussion. In her PhD research, Van de Wiel analyses cultural representations of egg freezing in British and Dutch newspaper coverage, the documentary Eggs for Later, informed consent forms and medical images of eggs and embryos.
The public debate on egg freezing reflects and produces contemporary ideas about when women should have children, when intended motherhood becomes characterised as postponement and when choosing a suitable partner—generally referred to as ‘Mr Right’—is a precondition for having children. Although such ideas are often legitimised with reference to the ageing female body, Van de Wiel draws attention to their cultural specificity. She positions them in a longer history of the medicalisation of women’s reproductive ageing in which gender-specific social expectations and conceptualisations of the female body are intertwined. In line with previous controversies about contraception, abortion and IVF, egg freezing once again posits women's reproductive decision-making as a public concern.
The possibility of exerting agency over reproductive ageing gives rise to new forms of personal responsibility for reproduction and health. Egg freezing can be positioned as an ‘anti-ageing’ intervention that extends female fertility, thereby intensifying women’s responsibility for timing reproduction and ‘successful’ ageing. Conversely, the introduction of this technology may also confirm and naturalise the time frame within which women are expected to have children. Within this logic, egg freezing may not signify an extension of fertility, but rather a postponement of motherhood. Either way, the public debate surrounding this technology reflects and reconfigures age norms for assuming fertility and anticipating future infertility.
With the introduction of egg freezing new forms of older motherhood emerge, including genetically related and posthumous motherhood. Cryopreservation also allows eggs to be transported across greater distances. This is particularly significant for transnational egg donation practices, in which egg ‘donors’ or recipients were previously required to move across national borders to give or receive eggs. Now, however, companies like the US-based World Egg Bank ship frozen eggs to fertility clinics around the world. Giving rise to this range of new possibilities, egg freezing thus provides the occasion for a reflection on cultural constructions of age, fertility and finitude.
Van de Wiel will be continuing her research at the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge.
Lucy van de Wiel, Freezing Fertility: Oocyte Cryopreservation and the Gender Politics of Ageing. Supervisors: Professor M.G. Bal and Professor J.F.T.M. van Dijck; co-supervisor: Dr E. Peeren.
The doctoral thesis defence ceremony will take place on Friday, 6 November, at 13:00.
Location: Auditorium of the University of Amsterdam, Singel 411 (on the corner of Spui square), Amsterdam