As a healthcare entrepreneur and student of disruptive innovations, my antennae start to quiver when I come across an innovation that will have far-reaching societal ramifications. There is a looming medical innovation that will shatter one of the more profound facts of human life: the Biological Clock.
The innovation is that human eggs can now be frozen, thawed years later and combined with sperm at the time of thaw to make a baby. Until recently, only embryos (i.e. eggs already fertilized with sperm) could be frozen and thawed later to make a baby. This means that women can freeze their eggs in their late teens, live their lives without fear of the Biological Clock, and then have children at whatever age they choose. This will alter societal behavior in significant ways.
Consider the context: the Biological Clock is one of the most powerful forces on earth. Procreation is a central element in the Theory of Evolution and also in religions that eschew evolution, as well as a foundational element in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In short, it’s a really big deal to everyone no matter what their beliefs!
In a more practical view, it drives choices around marriages, family-size, divorces, dating, friends, careers, spending habits, healthcare choices and lifestyles -- pretty much everything.
For some people, the Biological Clock causes them to choose a life partner and lifestyle conducive to raising children. For others, they make a conscious choice to turn their back on the Clock and/or certain potential life partners to live a lifestyle that is not conducive to raising children. Whatever choice they make, the Biological Clock is a factor somewhere / somehow either consciously or subconsciously.
Medical science is about to conquer the Biological Clock. The scientific innovation is that human eggs can now be frozen and thawed out years later to be combined with sperm at the time of thaw. Historically, only human embryos (i.e. eggs that have already been fertilized with sperm) could be frozen. Ronald Dworkin, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, wrote an op-ed piece in the WSJ about this over two years ago, called The Next Sexual Revolution (published for free here at the Hudson Institute website.)
Let’s go over that one more time: human eggs can be frozen, stored, thawed years later and combined with the sperm of a man identified at the time of thawing to make a baby. This has massive societal implications.
This is not science fiction. Certain companies, such as Extend Fertility, are already marketing this service to women, and scientific advancement is only going to make this service get better, faster and cheaper over time. Sure, some people will choose not to use this service no matter how good it gets because of religious reasons. But that will probably become the minority over time.
Currently, many clinics around the world successfully use frozen embryo technology to help women extend their Clock by combining their eggs with a sperm donor and freezing the resultant embryos. The embryos can be thawed and implanted in a woman’s uterus and a baby can come to term. This was the original Test Tube Baby procedure first performed several decades ago, and the technology has been improving by leaps and bounds. Already, one well-respected clinic in the U.S. has improved its embryo thawing success rate from 50% to 80% in the last 18 months. And when using young women’s eggs that same clinic’s success rate from frozen embryo to healthy baby 9 months later has increased from 10% to greater than 50% in the last several years.
But when using frozen embryo technology, a woman had to choose the biological father of her children at the time of freezing. And many women are not ready to do that. She can now choose the biological father of her children at the time of thawing. Will it become a common 21st birthday rite of passage for a woman to freeze her eggs and then wait 20 or 30 years to find a life partner and then thaw them out to have children? Maybe. Will private and government insurance around the world cover this service, in effect subsidizing the cost? Maybe. Will women using dating services in the future list how many frozen eggs they have in storage on their profile pages? Probably. Will there be a massive dislocation in population behavior in many different ways? Yes.
The Biological Clock is such a central driver of human behavior in all first-world societies that it is very difficult for us to picture what would change if the Biological Clock were to vanish. Many women, and men, would choose to put everything into their business, scientific, philanthropic or artistic careers until age 50 or later, and then have children. Women will no longer have to choose between career or children, or make the heroic effort required to have both at the same time. Men will no longer have to marry younger women if they want to have a family after retiring from a demanding career….there will be many women their own age with frozen eggs to choose from. Or many people might want to live a hakuna matata carefree life of travel and good times for 20 or 30 years until they are ready to choose a life partner and raise a family.
Society may bifurcate into a class of “breeders” and “non-breeders”, but not in a bad Orwellian way but in an open and accepted way that is respectful of where people are in their life’s journey, because the non-breeders can become breeders at almost any age.
I have 4 young children and I’m certain that this is the family-building context that they will come of age in. The next generation will think of living your life as a slave to the Biological Clock in the same way that they think of life without mobile computing devices – they just won’t be able to conceive of it. It will indeed be a Brave, New World unlike what we live in today.