The story of ?????

 Photo: ANDREW TWORT / London Telegraph  

Time for a little anthropological investigation. You can tell a lot from a culture by finding out what its members think is funny. In my present line of work I rarely have dealings with upwardly-mobile single women in their mid-30s.

But just such a person, by the name of Susanna Fogel, published a short humor piece in The New Yorker recently, and in it she says more about the ramifications of what is technically known as "oocyte cryopreservation" (I had to look it up)—in other words, having your eggs frozen—than many longer works of ethics or philosophy.

The piece is entitled "Your Frozen Egg Has a Question." The accompanying drawing shows a 30-something gal holding open the freezer door of an ordinary refrigerator. In the freezer there's nothing but a test tube and a sealed envelope. So the reader is ready for the conceit that the frozen egg has written a note to its—what? Donor? Not mother, not yet, anyway.

It is just such ambiguities that Fogel plays with as the piece develops. The first line is "Wait, OK, how do I address this letter? Who are you now, exactly, in relation to me?" Is an egg the same substance as the woman's body? Or different? It's clearly special, but until it's fertilized, well, the moral status of eggs, as well as fertilized embryos, is not a clear-cut thing to everyone by any means.

Another profound question without a definite answer comes up in the next paragraph: "Will I continue to be 35 until you defrost me?" Is a piece of frozen tissue from a living human alive, strictly speaking? Or dead? Or is the question meaningless? Clearly, the thread running through the piece that makes this interesting is the egg's potential for becoming a human being. But a lot has to happen before that potential can be actualized, and a frozen egg is about as inert, action-wise, as you can get.

Why do single women have their eggs frozen? It's an expensive procedure running upwards of several thousand dollars, with ongoing storage costs. The Wikipedia article on oocyte cryopreservation lists three groups of women for whom the procedure is helpful: those whose fertility may be terminated by chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer, those who are trying to have children with assisted reproductive technologies but don't want to freeze fertilized embryos, and those who may want to be able to have children in the future, for "personal or medical reasons."

I think the addressee in the humor piece is in the third category—those who want help from technology to stop their biological clock from ticking, in other words.

In the piece, somehow the egg knows about conversations with the donor's therapist, and comments on them: "you've admitted that you're not sure parenthood is right for you at all, and that you're worried you're just freezing your eggs because of societal expectations and your parents' hints about grandchildren."

The letter winds up rather poignantly, "Just circle back to me sooner rather than later if you can. And happy Valentine's Day. Sincerely, ?????"

The aim of much technological progress is to extend the sphere of personal control over matters that used to be regarded as given. Human fertility is one of those matters. With medical technologies such as in vitro fertilization and the freezing of fertilized embryos and (unfertilized) eggs, people who formerly were unable to have children have been enabled to become parents.

And those who can't make up their minds can at least have a chance of delaying their decision until after the natural time at which it would become impossible to conceive.

These matters go to the heart of what one believes about the nature of humans and the meaning of life. If you think that the highest form of life is human beings, then we are on our own with regard to how best to use these technologies. Other than talking to your therapist, who is only going to say something like "live your truth," (as the therapist in the article does) you are alone with your thoughts and your frozen eggs, whose fate is entirely up to you.

It is a fearful responsibility to bring a new human life into the world, and the shadow of this responsibility gives the article much of its energy and tension.

Is the situation any better for those who believe that God is the highest form of life and the designer of the universe, including human beings and the way they customarily come into the world? At least a therapist has a name and an address, and you can make an appointment and talk with him. But God -- if you say you've heard from God that you're supposed to have a baby -- well, some people will start avoiding you. And you may not like the people who agree with you.

Still, if God is in the picture, there is a framework of meaning given to life. The intention to have a baby is no longer an autonomous and entirely self-determined decision. If no human being is a surprise to God, then every pregnant woman has the most powerful Being in the universe rooting for her. That can be a lot more encouraging than a therapist.

Maybe all this strikes you as making an ethical mountain out of what was intended to be a humorous molehill—just a short magazine article that was intended to be funny. But the piece struck me as sad rather than funny. (Full disclosure: most of the pieces that The New Yorker publishes in their humor department don't strike me as funny. But that's no criticism of them. I just happen to have an antiquated sense of humor that went out of fashion with Jack Benny (1894-1974).)

Much humor is separated from tragedy only by one's point of view. While today's society vaunts individual freedom and gives men and women the power to separate their sexual lives from the question of reproduction, it has also led to a type of alienation that divides a woman from her own eggs, as Susanna Fogel has so effectively expressed in her piece.

Reproductive technologies such as oocyte cryopreservation can be a blessing for those whose fertility might otherwise be lost. But they can also lead to morally ambiguous situations that ordinary people may not be equipped to deal with, except by trying to laugh it off. 

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

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