“I Want My Eggs Frozen”: Single woman fights for reproductive rights in China
Feature photo: Zaozao Xu (in blue) walks out from the Chaoyao District People’s Court in Beijing, 23 December 2019.
On 23rd December 2019, when Zaozao Xu walked out the courtroom of the Chaoyao District People’s Court in Beijing, she was swamped by journalists, and members of the public, most of whom were women, thirsty for words from the single woman that sued a hospital for refusing to freeze her eggs.
As her career reached a crucial stage at age 30, she chose to put her career first. While not wanting to compromise her right as a woman to postpone having a baby to the future, the decision of freezing her eggs came rather naturally. That’s when she went to the Beijing Obstetrics and Gynaecology Hospital of Capital Medical University, asking for an operation to freeze her eggs.
“It is a dilemma between continuing my career and living up to the expectations of my family, the so-called ‘social responsibility’ of women, which is to get married and have a baby.”
“If I can delay childbirth for five years, that would really take off a huge amount of pressure” says Zaozao, a freelance prolific writer on gender issues, now, 32 years old, in an interview for China Minutes.
Although there is no specific law on reproductive technologies that has been issued by the People’s Congress, restrictions on single women freezing their eggs have been set out in two regulations issued by the Ministry of Health in 2003. These include the Ethical Review Principles for Performing Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) and Regulations on ARTs that say, “It is forbidden to proceed with human-assisted reproductive technology on single women.”
Despite the results of health checks suggesting that Zaozao is physically fit enough to undergo this surgery, she was turned down by the doctor, whom she described as a “considerate and experienced big sister,” because she is single.
Zaozao Xu is a freelance writer with an interest in gender issues. Image credit: The Paper
“She was trying to convince me to get married first and to take the surgery legally,” says Zaozao.
Having regarded herself as an “independent and strong woman” in her career, she said, “I was treated like a child dominated by her adulthood and life experience, and it seems my rights to reproduction are under her control…it makes me feel like I’m a ‘trouble-maker.’”
One day at an event Zaozao met a lawyer who suggested she try a law available in Jilin province which allows local women who are of marriage age but choose not to get married to take human assisted reproductive operation. At the end of March 2019, she made her mind to go down the court route and started seeking legal advice.
After being rejected several times, Zaozao and her lawyer successfully took the hospital to court last summer for “infringement of individual’s rights,” making it the first legal battle of its kind in China.
A spokesperson for the hospital fears allowing single women to freeze eggs could aggravate problems concerning the already serious aging population in China. The hospital also argues it could encourage illegal eggs trading or even lead to surrogate pregnancy, which is currently banned in China.
There are also opposite voices including Sun Wei, a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), who is also a chief physician at Department of Reproductive Medicine of The Second Affiliated Hospital of Shandong University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They claim human assisted reproductive technology is immature and it can cause complexities such as Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS) which is associated with swollen, enlarged ovaries and the collection of fluid in the abdominal cavity.
Dong Xiaoying, director at Advocates for Diverse Family Network, a non-government organisation (NGO) based in Guangzhou, China advocating rights for single women and LGBTQ+ families, says there is an ongoing support for single women’s reproductive rights.
According to Tiantian Chen, a PhD at Cambridge University, studying the influence of internet and politics on egg freezing practices in China, local governments take different stances on regulating egg freezing practices.
She continues, “The government encourages early marriage and early childbearing to increase birth rate. Therefore, egg freezing does not fit policy agendas.
“Some policymakers also believe it enables single women to have children in later life. If they were allowed to freeze eggs and later fertilize them with donated sperm, single women might become single mothers. Single motherhood is still strongly prohibited in Chinese society.”
She also mentions that some officials were concerned about children’s psychological wellbeing due to the absence of fatherhood as a result of such practice. “When single women conceive children with donated sperm, children’s biologic father is unknow since sperm donation is anonymous and no man can act as children’s legal father since these women are never married. In this sense, children born to single mother families become ‘children of no one’”, says Chen.
In observation of online discussions on this issue, Chen says, “The majority of netizens supported the technology because they thought it could improve women’s social standing. They also represented egg freezing a personal, commercial and straightforward solution to women’s predicament in daily life…and almost suggested that women can solve work-family conflicts or can overcome aging anxieties as long as they spend money on egg freezing. Such description of egg freezing is very neoliberal, which places the burden of solving problems on women. And it is surrounded with narratives of consumerism. The rationale is increasing market visibility to cope with structural inequality.
“Women should be supported in their choices, but they must be informed about the relatively low success rates, high costs and side-effects of egg freezing. Before we celebrate egg freezing, we need to dig into the factors that force women to delay motherhood and pursue egg freezing. We need to question why women struggle to find a partner to parent with, how to challenge stereotypes that stigmatize unmarried and childless women, how to handle work and family conflicts, why there is prevailing anxiety of aging women.”
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