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United States Defense
Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently implemented a number of changes to help the
military better accommodate the lives of its young men and women in service. In
addition to focusing on longer maternity leaves, creating a more responsive
lactation environment in military facilities, and improving child care, Carter
also launched a pilot program that will pay for military men and women to
freeze their sperm and eggs for later use. This effort to retain troops by
making the military more family-friendly places the Pentagon, one of the
world’s most massive employers, at the forefront of reproductive issues.

The Pentagon’s Desire to Change with the Times
Today’s American military
employs many young men and women who are eager to start their families and no
longer see a place for the military in their lives. In fact, women with ten
years of service have a 30 percent lower retention rate than males since ten
years typically coincides with the peak time for having children.

In his speech to the
Pentagon, Mr. Carter explained, “Particularly for women who are midgrade
officers and enlisted personnel, this benefit will demonstrate that we
understand the demands upon them and want to help them balance commitments to
force and commitments to family. We want to retain them in our military.”
As many top companies
around the world like Facebook are adapting to the needs of young men and
women, Mr. Carter’s family initiatives are a response to his concern that the
military needs to place a larger emphasis on work-life balance in order to
maintain the best talent and demonstrate reproductive sensitivity.

The Facts of Egg and Sperm Preservation
Sperm preservation,
commonly known as sperm banking, has been done successfully for many years. New
vitrification technology now flash-freezes sperm to give it superior motility
upon use. The longest successful storage lasted for 22 years.
Egg preservation, on the
other hand, is a trickier matter. The egg is the body’s largest cell and
contains a great deal of water, so ice crystals can destroy the frozen cell if the
egg isn’t first dehydrated. It takes 4-6 weeks to prepare the body for egg
retrieval in a process identical to women preparing for in-vitro fertilization.
Once the eggs have matured, they’re removed and frozen immediately.

Possible Complications for the Pentagon
According to experts in
the field, the Pentagon will have many complex details to sort through before
its preservation initiative can become permanent. In terms of ethics, legal
preparations must be made to arrange the terms in case of death, cognitive
disability, and family disagreements. Similarly, women need to be fully
educated to understand that egg freezing doesn’t have a 100 percent success
On the more technical
side, safeguards are needed in case the company storing the sperm and eggs goes
bankrupt. It’s also going to be an expensive program for the Pentagon,
considering that it costs about $10,000 to freeze eggs. Mr. Carter is
anticipating a price tag of $150 million over five years.

The Bottom Line

Overall, this initiative
is being viewed as a major step of progress, and advocates are calling for the
rest of the federal government to follow the military’s lead. As Sean Tipton,
the spokesperson for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, explained,
America has an obligation to support its male and female military members—not
just in service, but also as family members, mothers, and fathers. 

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