In January, the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon, as part of its efforts to embrace more family-friendly policies, will cover the costs of egg and sperm freezing for active-duty service members who want to preserve their fertility. The benefit—which came as a surprise to many in both the medical and military communities—is one of several personnel reforms under the Defense Department’s Force of the Future Initiative, a series of strategic policies to improve quality of family life in the Armed Forces. Other benefits include increased maternity leave, from six to 12 weeks; increased paternity leave, from 10 to 14 days; extended day-care hours; expanded adoption leave; and lactation rooms to be installed at more than 3,600 bases.
“We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they can ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family,” Carter said in a media briefing at the Pentagon.
Nearly half of all military officers are between the ages of 26 and 35, and roughly two-thirds of enlisted personnel are younger than 30, meaning the majority of the Armed Forces are of prime reproductive age. With coverage for egg freezing, in particular, the military hopes to retain servicewomen who would otherwise leave active duty to have children. The military will provide egg and sperm cryopreservation through a two-year pilot program to be offered through Tricare, the military’s health-care network.
According to Brad Carson, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, eligible service members will be able to freeze their eggs or sperm at private clinics that have been vetted through Tricare.
“It’s about giving women in the force more options to reconcile personal and professional ambitions,” Carson, who is leading the Force of the Future program, said in an interview. “Too often, women find those two things to be incompatible.”
For fertility advocates, who for years have lobbied the government to cover the cost of reproductive services for military members and veterans with frustratingly little success, the news was especially gratifying.
“This is just huge,” said Barbara Collura, the executive director of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. “This could be a sea change as it relates to coverage for people who need IVF as well as egg and sperm freezing.”
While egg freezing is not yet commonplace, an estimated 76,000 women will electively freeze their eggs by 2018, according to EggBanxx, a fertility marketing company. The procedure was considered “experimental” and came with a cautionary warning until 2012, but it would be a few more years before it took its first big step towards the cultural mainstream—in October 2014, Facebook and Apple announced they would begin offering female employees a health benefit worth up to $20,000 to freeze their eggs, and several other private-sector companies have since followed suit.