If you think there’s no such thing as a slippery slope, have a look at this chilling piece by William Saletan, “Better Than Sex.” Reading Saletan’s account of embryo eugenics, it’s hard not to think of Gattaca. At any rate, it’s tough to deny that there are legitimate concerns about a slippery slope from biotech to some very troubling practices.
Keeping Saletan’s account in mind, consider this: “Women delaying motherhood should freeze eggs: British expert.” The argument here is that the many women who postpone motherhood could heighten their chances of future fertility by freezing some of their eggs while they’re still young. Recognizing that regularizing this practice could increase national fertility rates, a clever demographer has ventured an additional suggestion. Since women don’t consciously plan to delay motherhood, this demographer recommends that all women who don’t have children when young should be encouraged (in sex education classes, and through a massive public health campaign) to freeze at least four eggs.
I’m not sure it’s certain that egg-freezing will raise collective fertility rates. By relieving the pressure of the biological clock, mass egg-freezing may actually encourage more women to postpone motherhood. Still, it’s certainly conceivable that collective egg freezing will up fertility rates. So let’s imagine that the practice actually does become common. Toward the end of “Demographics and the Culture Wars,” I suggest that in a future under economic pressure from low fertility rates, some countries might respond by returning to tradition, while others might adopt a radical new eugenics: using female surrogates, perhaps even aided by artificial wombs, to bear and raise children.
Now imagine a West under heavy pressure from shrinking fertility, in which it is common practice for women in their twenties to freeze several eggs. What happens to the eggs that don’t get used? Maybe a woman dies before using them. Maybe she has kids the old fashioned way and no longer needs her frozen eggs. Maybe she can’t afford to keep her eggs up (it costs around two-hundred dollars a year to maintain a frozen egg). Might all those abandoned eggs be donated to, or even seized by, the government? Or maybe the government would pay for the freezing of eggs on receipt of an “egg tax.” Store four eggs for free by giving a fifth to the state. After all, we have anonymous sperm donors. So why not anonymous egg donors? One way or another, in a world under heavy population pressure, the state could have a real interest in getting its hands on those unused eggs.
OK, as to specifics, this is speculative. But put together Saletan’s striking account with the idea of mass egg storage, and it’s tough not to imagine that some strange and unanticipated developments would ensue.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.