Movie star one of the increasing number of single Chinese women storing their eggs
"I feel like I have found the only medicine for regret," the 41-year-old Chinese actress Xu Jinglei said when she announced early this month that she had been to the U.S. to freeze her eggs.
Unmarried Xu is well known for her publicly-stated decision not to give birth. However, she has explained that she does not want to regret not having a baby if one day she or her partner changes their mind. "I feel a little bit of regret because I'm freezing the eggs so late. I'm getting old," she added.
Her announcement has drawn public attention at home because this technology is not yet commonly used by single women, though it is becoming more popular.
Many have wondered whether they are able to receive such services in China, what the impact of this technology may be and why are increasing numbers of women looking to freeze their eggs.
Egg-freezing technology has existed in China since the 1990s and success rates have significantly improved since around six years ago. Peking University No.3 Hospital in Beijing, the Reproductive and Genetic Hospital of Citic-Xiangya in Hunan Province and the Reproductive Hospital affiliated to Shandong University in Shandong Province were the first Chinese hospitals to have such technology.
According to Lin Ge, deputy head of the Reproductive and Genetic Hospital of Citic-Xiangya, the technology is mainly used in parallel with in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Usually IVF patients are those who have fertility difficulties. Doctors harvest eggs from the ovaries after a woman has taken medication for several weeks to stimulate egg production.
The eggs will then be fertilized in a laboratory. If the male partner cannot produce a sample or if the couple want to wait, the eggs can be frozen and stored. When the eggs are fertilized, the embryo will be introduced back into the woman's uterus.
More than 140 patients have had their eggs frozen in the hospital so far. Two were single women aged over 35, while the others were IVF patients and those with cancers or other conditions who faced a high risk of losing their fertility from chemotherapy.
"The two patients were both single professionals," the hospital's spokesperson surnamed Dong said.
"China's egg-freezing technology is as mature and developed as that of the U.S.," Li Mei, the head of the reproductive department of the Reproductive Hospital affiliated to Shandong University, told the Global Times, claiming that the recovery rate for defrosted eggs is 95 percent and the subsequent pregnancy rate is 60 percent.
Li said that the number of single women freezing their eggs is still low - with less than 10 undergoing the procedure at the Shandong hospital a year - but the number is growing.
"In the past, women found the concept hard to accept and many did not know the technology existed. But following media reports and celebrities admitting that they have frozen their eggs, people's awareness has increased," Li continued. "The trend of single women freezing their eggs has just begun. We have received many related questions in recent years and some even asked if the technology could preserve their eggs until the government changes its policy on having second children."
Both Li and Lin said that the whole egg-freezing procedure costs about 20,000 yuan and storage fees will be charged each month. It is recommended that women get their eggs frozen before they are 35 as this makes it less likely the eggs will have chromosomal abnormalities.
"I had to do IVF two years ago because I and my husband are both too old to have a baby naturally. I wish I had known about the egg-freezing technology earlier so I would not have wasted so much time and could have access to younger eggs," a 40-year-old woman surnamed Chen, who is a primary school teacher in Beijing told the Global Times.
According to thepaper.cn, the law stipulates that couples must present their marriage certificate, identity cards and birth permits and prove that at least one partner is suffering from fertility difficulties if they want to use "assisted reproductive technology." Several hospitals in Beijing told the Global Times that they do not freeze single women's eggs as they fear legal repercussions.
However, Lin pointed out that as egg freezing does not necessarily involve IVF, it is not technically an "assisted reproductive technology."
Besides, the technology of egg freezing still faces some challenges. "The impact of years of freezing on eggs is not clear," Li said.
"The likelihood of pregnancy will decrease with age. There may be a series of health, psychological and social problems caused by older women getting pregnant, which is why we recommend women see the technology as a last resort," Li stressed.
Zhou Haiwang, deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Population and Development, told the Global Times that the increasing number of women freezing their eggs reflects the improving status of women in society, which has resulted in many women finding it difficult to meet a suitable partner and waiting longer to have children.
"Beijing and Shanghai have seen more and more women getting married after they are 26 while in the past women would get married in their early 20s. Women nowadays are concentrating more on their work and may not be willing to quit their job to have babies," Zhou said. "Also the problem is that not every woman in her prime birthing years can find a suitable partner."
Lu Jiehua, a professor of social demography at Peking University, argued that this technology is liberating women and allowing them to decide when to have children according to their circumstances, not simply their biological clocks.