In a move to attract and retain young service members, the Department of Defense has announced a new plan to cover the cost of freezing their sperm and eggs.
Up until now, this kind of insurance perk has been mostly contained to privately-owned Silicon Valley tech giants, like Apple and Facebook, in hopes of retaining female staff in a male-dominated industry. But the government’s motives are a little more unsettling.
“We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries,” said Defense Secretary Ash Carter last week.
Along with wanting to retain members, especially women, who may be inclined to leave to start a family, the DOD acknowledges the risk of damaging reproductive organs on the battlefield — injuries that more than 1,300 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have suffered.
“By providing this additional peace of mind for our young service members, we provide our force greater confidence about their future,” Carter said.
This pilot program, which will cover the $12,000 average cost of freezing sperm or eggs, is a piece of Carter’s bigger push to recruit people who plan on having children — or already do — into military positions. Carter has also promised additional lactation rooms and childcare services on military grounds, and standardized leave times for new parents. But his sweeping action has left some critics in its wake — especially since the new 12-week maternity leave policy actually cuts Navy members’ previous allotment and remains inequitable to men’s 14-day paternity leave.
The idea of employer-sponsored egg freezing has always sparked ethical questions.
When private companies first offered egg or sperm freezing to their employees, some argued it was rooted in an unhealthy obsession with work. “It absolves workplaces from doing the hard work of changing outdated cultures that often reward total devotion and long hours over talent and performance,” an 2014 CNN op-ed argued.
The success rate of live births from frozen eggs has also remained dismal — no higher than 24 percent since 2009 — which can negate the reason a woman may decide to freeze her eggs in the first place. Physicians are already concerned that the DOD won’t warn service members of these real risks.
“If your eggs won’t work, you won’t find out until you’re 39,” Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, told the New York Times. “Freezing sperm and eggs is not like freezing chicken for dinner.”
And considering the fact that military women have a higher rate of unplanned pregnancies than the general population — and don’t have insurance coverage for elective abortion services — others argue that the DOD’s main focus should actually be on improving their limited access to birth control.
However, with military enrollment dwindling, Carter said his intentions are merely the result of a “simple calculation.”
“We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they could ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family.”
If successful, he said the program could become permanent in two years.