Echoing the Silicon Valley technology companies that famously offer generous perks to retain their employees, the military is kicking off a new pilot program that will cover the costs of egg and sperm freezing for all active-duty soldiers.
The Department of Defense told Al Jazeera that it will spend $150 million over the next five years for soldiers who elect to freeze their eggs or sperm in order to defer childbearing or in the case of injury.
The move is part of a package of personnel reforms outlined by Department of Defense Secretary Ash Carter last week. It’s part of an effort to make the military more family friendly and encourage troops to remain enlisted. The changes include 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for women, double the previous amount. Carter also vowed to expand paternity leave — currently, men in the U.S. military receive only 10 days — and to extend the hours of military child-care centers.
“We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries," said Carter said in a Jan. 28 media briefing at the Pentagon. "That's why we will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active-duty service members."
The policy is part of the DOD’s Force of the Future Initiative, which Carter began planning when he became defense secretary in early 2015. The goal is to enhance the workplace for “our most competitive edge—our people,” and compete with the private sector for top talent, as Carter outlined in a memo to the department in November 2015 (PDF). Other plans include establishing an entrepreneur-in-residence program, expanding a pilot program to give sabbaticals from the military and installing 3,600 lactation rooms at DOD facilities.
“We are not Google. We are not Wal-Mart. We're war fighters,” Carter said in the Jan. 28 speech. “But that doesn't mean we should not be challenging ourselves just like the private sector. To modernize our workplace and workforce, to retain and attract the top talent we need, so that our force can remain the best for future generations.”
While the military will spend $150 million for elective egg and sperm freezing procedures, it will not cover the costs of in-vitro fertilization, according to Brad Carson, who is leading the Force of the Future program. That benefit is available only to active-duty soldiers who get injured. But Carson says the DOD is looking to expand IVF coverage for more active-duty service members. (The Department of Veterans Affairs does not cover IVF for wounded veterans.)
“Our goal is to make the Department of Defense as progressive an employer as there is in the entire country,” Carson told Al Jazeera. “We think it will encourage women and men, too, to sign up, and we think it will keep them in the force.”
Carson says that one of the military’s biggest challenges is making military service compatible with having kids. “The demands of family are a major reason for the attrition of women, especially, in the force,” he said.
He says women leave the armed forces at about double the rate that men do, usually between the ages of 26 and 35. And in many cases, he adds, they are leaving for the private sector.
Carson says his team did months of polling and interviews to figure out which benefits employees wanted most, and he kept hearing that women were electing to freeze their eggs and wished the cost could be covered. “Women would talk to us about how important these reforms are,” he said.
After egg freezing was removed from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s experimental procedures list in 2012, women have increasingly been choosing to undergo the procedure to delay having children, either for professional reasons or because they haven’t met the right partner. EggBanxx, a national network of doctors who perform the egg freezing procedure, estimates that 76,000 women will elect to do it by 2018.
There are also some important ethical questions the military will want to consider, says I.G. Cohen, faculty director of Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics. What happens, for example, to the eggs or sperm if a service member dies? Or what if a couple who have frozen their eggs or sperm or an embryo splits up?
“I’m very curious to know what regulations or documents they’re having service members sign regarding this position upon death and divorce,” Cohen says.
In 2007, for example, an Israeli court ruled that a dead soldier’s family was allowed to use his frozen sperm to create grandchildren.
“In the case of divorce, many courts have chosen not to enforce the agreement” that has been signed at the time of retrieval, Cohen said.
The DOD says that service members will be signing consent agreements that are typically given to men or women who elect to freeze eggs and sperm in order to indicate their preferences in the face of death or divorce.
Another concern, Cohen says, is whether the new benefits will be viewed as pressure to delay having children to succeed or advance in one’s military career. “There is this interesting mixed signal, I think,” he said. “It’s important that promotion criteria is clearly laid out to retain protection for women who want to have children earlier.”
Carson said the military does not intend to pressure women. “We’re not encouraging people to put off having families,” he said. “We are recognizing that people want the option to do it later. We want this to be the best place to work in the entire nation.”