Ageing society

How a ban is forcing China’s single women to put their fertility on ice overseas

Legal restrictions spawn a burgeoning business helping unmarried women freeze their eggs in the US and Japan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 August, 2017, 8:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2017, 10:24pm

Shanghai lingerie designer Le Le has been to Japan many times, but her trip in March to Osaka was not for sightseeing or shopping – she went to freeze her eggs.

“I have been thinking about this for more than a year. For me taking some out now when their quality is good and preserving them for future use is necessary. It allows me to decide when to have a baby,” the 35-year-old said.

Le, who is single, said she knew the quality of ova declined as a woman aged. “I have not found my Mr Right. I don’t want to wait passively – I want to take a proactive approach [by freezing eggs],” she said. “I don’t have to force myself to marry someone I don’t love for the sake of having a baby.”

Years ago, freezing eggs made headlines when US technology giants such as Apple, Microsoft and Facebook offered to cover the fees for this service for female staff in an effort to retain talent. The Japanese city of Urayasu last year also announced it would subsidise the cost of freezing eggs to boost the country’s low birth rate as the population rapidly ages.

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But any single mainland woman wanting to freeze her eggs has to go abroad to do so – on the mainland hospitals need to see a marriage certificate and official ­approval to do the procedure.

“It’s banned in China, so I went to Japan – it’s near Shanghai and there’s no big jet-lag problem,” Le said.

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Beijing woman Tina Li flew to California last year to freeze her eggs. Li, 25, has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and a cervix disorder. She is also single and doesn’t want to rush into a ­relationship.

“This regulation is unreasonable. I have the final say over my own body. The government shouldn’t rule on whether I can freeze my own eggs,” she said.

In an online poll two years ago,76 per cent of 3,200 users of the social media site said they supported the idea of freezing eggs for future use as an alternative to having babies, while 18 per cent said they opposed it, saying that children need a complete family.

Two-thirds of those polled thought the country’s move to bar single women from using the practice was unreasonable and infringed on their right to have a baby, but another 30 per cent said they supported this regulation, for fear of social problems they said could be caused by egg freezing.

Chinese women have been marrying later in life in recent decades. In Shanghai, the age for a woman’s first marriage used to be around 20. By 2014, the age was 28, according to figures from the municipal civil affairs authority.

Chinese single women are often under parental pressure to tie the knot before a certain age, such as 30; otherwise, they are dismissed as “leftover women” and told they will be too old to conceive.

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Movie star Xu Jinglei brought the issue to national attention two years ago when she said she went to the United States in 2013 to undergo the process.

Xu, 43 this year, said she was not ready for marriage or having a baby. She said she regretted not having her eggs frozen earlier.

Companies are starting to cater to women wanting the service. Travel website offers a seven-day California tour which includes sessions at a clinic for egg freezing. The tour package costs at least 150,000 yuan (HK$175,868), according to the website.

Reproductive Partners Medical Group, a US-based company which has operated a Beijing office for five years, sends up to 35 women per month for infertility care and egg freezing to its clinics in southern California.

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Most of its clients are from mainland China and most are over 40, an age Robert Rosen, the company’s managing director for Asia, said was too late for egg freezing or in vitro fertilisation services.

“For a woman about 27, she can produce around 30 eggs a month, 90 per cent of which are of high quality. But for a woman in her 40s, she can only produce five eggs per month, with just one or two eggs being good quality,” he said.

He said many women sought egg freezing when they were older because they only realised when they turned about 40 that it was necessary. The cost of the procedure – 100,000 yuan at Rosen’s company – was prohibitive for younger women, he said.

“The big reason for this is that women want to save their fertility before they find their right partner,” he said. “A small percentage of women do egg freezing because they have cancer or disease.”

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John Jain, medical director of Santa Monica Fertility, said the ban seemed odd.

“I understand that there are cultural, social and legal concerns about surrogacy and egg donation. But I don’t quite understand what the problem is with Chinese single women freezing eggs to have a future family unless the service is not available.”

Jain provides egg freezing service for one or two mainland women per month. He charges US$25,700 per cycle for all services and medications.

Zoe Zhu, co-founder of Shanghai-based Xin Health, which helps women access egg-freezing services in Japan, said women across China contacted the company, asking about prices, duration of stay and side effects.

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“Some single women are interested in it, but their parents object to it, worrying that the drugs used to stimulate the ovaries would speed up menopause,” Zhu said.

Jain said that in the US there were 150,000 in vitro fertilisation and egg freezing cases every year. “If it is dangerous, it would not be widespread. So long as the doctor is experienced, the risk is very low, 99 per cent of women will have no problems.”

Le said her father supported her, but her friends did not understand her decision, guessing that she has lost faith in love.

“I tell them that egg freezing and marriage are two different things,” Le said. “Egg freezing just gives me more choices and chances. After looking at my strengths, I think there’s no problem raising a baby by myself.”

Tina Li said her egg freezing trip to the US was a “milestone” in her life. She said she felt relaxed after the operation since she could now focus on her work and live her own life, rather than feeling pressured to look for a boyfriend.

“The only thing is that my parents became worried about me,” she said. “They say I will have a firmer attitude against considering marriage.”