Is Freezing Eggs a Feasible Solution to the Reproductive Anxiety of Chinese Women?

egg freezing in liquified nitrogen of minus -196 Celsius (source: shutterstock)

The reason why humans need marriage is for reproduction. If we abandon the reproductive characteristics of marriage, couples will be no different from ordinary friends. In another words, marriage without the purpose of reproduction has lost its necessity.” — “Cold Thought” under the “Hot Demand” of Single Female’s Reproductive Rights

Xu Zaozao (pseudonym), is a 31 year-old Chinese woman working in Beijing, who’s unmarried and single. Around 2017, her mom sent her an article about a single woman having a child. Her mom said to her, “Don’t you want a baby of your own?” By the spring festival of 2018, she began contemplating ways to freeze her eggs in China. She went to the Beijing Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital, at Capital Medical University, and told the doctor that she needed an ovarian function test before the egg freezing surgery. After inquiring about her age, health conditions, medical history, the doctor’s biggest concern was her marital status.

“Our country has a rather conservative reproductive culture, and single women giving birth remains a sensitive issue. For the time being, such policies haven’t opened yet in China. You could go abroad for surgery if you really need to freeze your eggs.” One of the doctors told her that she would get rejected for lacking a marriage certificate.

Problems with the administrative procedures of the reproductive center of the hospital actually lie with the lack of timely legal regulations. The latest regulations are the “Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Specifications” promulgated in 2003 by the National Health Commission, which explicitly stipulates that “It is forbidden to proceed with human-assisted reproductive technology on single women, and on couples who do not comply with the laws and regulations concerning national population and family planning.”

While gathering relevant backup resources, Xu found another story from 2018. A reporter had done some field research and called six hospitals in China’s northeastern Jilin Province, inquiring about the possibility of freezing the eggs of a single woman, only to get rejected by all of them.

In the end, she chose to resort to legal action, filing a lawsuit against the hospital to the Chaoyang District Court. With Two Sessions, the annual plenary sessions where many national-level political decisions are made, coming around in January 2020, it seems to be the right moment to bring up the controversial topic. “I could have never imagined the attention I’ve received. The issues being widely seen proves the increased attention to the rights of single women.” Xu said, surrounded by reporters in a cafe nearby the court where her trial took place.

Xu Zaozao, surrounded by reporters in a cafe nearby the court where her trial took place (source: Gabriel Li/ Pandaily)

Soon enough, an intriguing social paradox emerged — Should China learn from some developed countries by allowing single women to freeze their eggs? (America, Japan, Russia, etc.) To some extent, the surgery helps alleviate the reproductive anxiety for modern Chinese women, despite the fact that it costs a fortune to travel to an overseas clinic.

According to traditional Chinese family concepts, reproduction bears the heavy burden of carrying on the family line. As cited from ancient classics Mencius, There are three ways to be unfilial; having no sons is the worst. In the meantime, with the ever rising education level, social status and competence of young female working professionals in first-tier cities, getting married and giving birth early on in life brings with it a heavy family burden, which conflicts with their career paths and other self-development plans. In this sense, egg freezing provides them with a kind of guarantee for future reproduction.

For now, according to marriage big data in 2017, the average age of first marriage in Shenzhen is currently 30.8 years old, even higher than that of some western countries. Back in 2015, the average age for women in Shanghai to give birth to their firstborn was 29 years old, equivalent to that of countries in the EU.

According to Yu, one of Xu’s attorneys, “When we look at the sixth population census, among all the Chinese women above 30 years old, unmarried ones account for 2.47%, which is actually a large amount. The demand for egg freezing is also huge. I heard some big companies like Ctrip provide support for female executives to have this surgery abroad.” In fact, chairman and co-founder of Ctrip, Liang Jianzhang, announced that the company will provide financial assistance ranging from 100,000 yuan (US$14,994) to 2 million yuan, along with seven days’ paid leave, to mid to senior level female executives, so that they can access “cutting-edge technologies associated with pregnancies, including egg freezing”, according to a company spokesperson.

In the meantime, the high cost of the surgery makes it less accessible. According to media reports, the cost of egg freezing in the United States is around 120,000 yuan ($17,170) to 150,000 yuan ($21,463). The annual storage cost of egg freezing ranges from $600 to $700, as the eggs need to be stored in liquefied nitrogen of minus -196 Celsius. On the other hand, egg freezing in Ukraine costs $6800, with annual storage cost of $250. According to a 40 year-old lady who worked in public hospitals, a quality hospital in Beijing would cost around 70,000 to 80,000 yuan.

Legal explanations

Interestingly, according to Xu’s lawyer Yu, the lawsuit is filed on the grounds of general personal rights. “Originally, we had planned to file the case with the cause of medical contract dispute, but failed. So we did some risk analysis of filing the case. Egg freezing is about reproductive rights. However, ‘reproductive rights’ does not have a clear definition in the national law, so we end up using general personal rights as the cause.” Yu explained to reporters.

In terms of the 2003 regulations on forbidding single women’s childbirth, Yu mentioned that it is obviously obsolete with the changing of the times.

A master student in law from China University of Political Science and Law told me, “I read some papers. The 2003 regulations should be in violation of the upper law, possibly Article 48 of the Constitution on gender equality, for that the regulations didn’t stipulate the marital status for men as a prerequisite of sperm freezing.”

Tracing back the history, the law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women issued in 1992, Article 47 states: “Women have the right to child-bearing in accordance with relevant regulations of the state as well as the freedom not to bear any child.” Here it does not explicitly state that women need to be married.

Ethical contradictions

On an ethical level, opening up policies might also bring serious intergenerational issues. As written in the thesis “Cold Thought” under the “Hot Demand” of Single Women’s Reproductive Rights, “While this generation is pursuing and realizing their basic rights, they should not diminish the opportunities for future generations to pursue and realize these basic rights. Artificial assisted reproductive technology that departs from pure medical purposes might meet the reproductive demands of this generation, but it deprives the next generation of their entitled rights.” Here, the rights refer to the stable nuclear family model and fatherly love and affection that a child should be entitled to from birth.

In this respect, excluding those that just want to postpone starting a family, women that made up their minds to have a baby on their own might not necessarily have given much thought to the complex situations a child might encounter being born into single parent household. The traditional family values embedded in the Chinese society are not easily wavered.

On the other hand, amending policies for single women’s childbirth might result in many choosing to wait to get married and to have children, which goes against the general national policy of the Chinese government, which encourages childbirth. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2018, about 15.23 million babies were born, which is a 2 million decrease compared to 2017. The birth rate and natural population growth rate (the difference between the birth rate and the death rate) in 2018 reached its lowest point seen over the past decades. At such a rate, the Chinese population will cease to grow at some point around 2027.

SEE ALSO: Drastic Decline in China’s Population Growth Rate — Reproductive Anxiety Among Post-90s Generation

For the moment, the court is being adjourned, and the case awaits to be settled possibly after the Chinese New Year.