'Ovary the moon!' shouted the Mirror's front page, above the smiling face of 34-year-old cancer sufferer Carolyn Neill. In January, Neill won the right to use her frozen eggs - collected before she underwent chemotherapy - to have a child. Inside the paper, the 'Voice of the Mirror' continued with the celebratory tone: 'to women like Carolyn, who see their chance of motherhood vanish through illness, new hope is given by these brilliant new techniques.'
Reproductive technology was not always greeted so positively. The media frenzy surrounding the birth of Louise Brown nearly 22 years ago has, in the world of reproductive technologies, been matched only by the news of Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997. From the very beginning of Louise Brown's life, concerns about the moral acceptability of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) were raised. For those who believed that life begins at conception, the fact that IVF involved the destruction of human embryos made it an abhorrent practice. Even the British Medical Association did not publicly approve of IVF until 1985 - by which time Louise Brown was seven years old and the government-commissioned Warnock report had recommended legislation permitting embryo research.
But when Louise Brown reached her twenty-first birthday last year, nobody took much notice. With half a million test-tube babies now walking the planet, IVF itself is no longer controversial. Today, the concerns have shifted to how this technology is used.
The reaction to Carolyn Neill's case may have been entirely positive (even the pro-life lobby had trouble objecting). But the idea that this same technology might be used by women who are not cancer survivors, but just want to delay motherhood for a decade or two, was met with disapproval. Jacqueline Laing, writing in the Daily Mail, typified the media reaction to egg freezing for reasons of convenience when she said that it 'ignores the rights of the child and trivialises the act of procreation. It makes a baby into a commodity to be ordered up for the freezer when convenient'.
But how are a child's rights violated by being born of egg freezing? And how exactly is the act of procreation trivialised by having children this way? Carolyn Neill is planning to have a child by exactly the same means, and she is applauded for doing so. Yet a woman who has a non-medical reason for using egg freezing is somehow acting in a morally dubious fashion.
The message that Jacqueline Laing and commentators like her seem to be trying to convey is that it doesn't matter so much which method you use for having children, but why you wish to use that technique. If nature has dealt you an unfortunate hand - if you have had cancer or a premature menopause - egg freezing is seen as a right and proper way out of your predicament. But if you want it - or any other reproductive technology - for anything other than medical reasons, expect to meet with disapproval.
In a similar story before Christmas, a young woman suffering an early menopause had had one of her ovaries frozen and then returned to her body. The success of Margaret Lloyd-Hart's ovarian graft has - like egg freezing - given hope to young women whose fertility has been damaged. Those women may now be able to freeze their ovarian tissue before their fertility is destroyed by chemotherapy or premature menopause, and have it returned at a later date to try to get pregnant. Again, while the application of ovarian tissue grafting caused little concern, a debate kicked off about 'career women' who would use the technique to cheat the biological clock and have a child for convenience.
But what is wrong with career women using new reproductive technologies to have a child later than nature might make possible? How is this scenario different from that in which a woman decides to stay on the pill because she isn't ready to be a mother yet? Both women are opting for the most convenient time in their lives to have their children. And what could be wrong with this? Careful family planning tends to make for happy, fulfilled mothers with, as a consequence, well-rounded happy children.
In fact, it will be a long time before egg freezing for 'convenience' reasons takes off. It is an expensive, invasive procedure which offers little chance of success. A 45-year-old woman is more likely to conceive naturally than she is by egg freezing and IVF. But one day, this technology might be cheaper, easier and much more successful. What would be so wrong with a woman using science to avoid having a baby just because nature dictates it, and waiting instead until her children are planned, prepared for and very much wanted?
Juliet Tizzard is director of Progress Educational Trust, a charity set up to promote the benefits of reproductive and genetic science (www.progress.org.uk)
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000