Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Actress Comes to America to Freeze Her Eggs, Internet Goes Wild

Xu Jinglei unexpectedly touched off widespread debate about Chinese state control of women's reproductive rights.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 11:  Chineese actress Xu Jinglei attends the 5th Chinese Film Festival press conference on May 11, 2015 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 11: Chineese actress Xu Jinglei attends the 5th Chinese Film Festival press conference on May 11, 2015 in Paris, France. (Photo by Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images)

When Chinese actress Xu Jinglei sat down for a July 8 interview with Chinese lifestyle magazine Vista, she had a small confession to make: In 2013, at the age of 39, she had gone to the United States and had nine of her eggs frozen. “This is the world’s only remedy for regret” about foregoing pregnancy during childbearing age, she told the interviewer. Xu, pictured above, implied she wished she had taken the step sooner.

The interview itself made a small ripple online and in Chinese media. But the real splash came when China’s Central Television (CCTV) ran a widely shared Aug. 2 rebuttal explaining that, in China, single women are not permitted to freeze their own eggs in order to later have a child. In fact, CCTV wrote on Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform, that single Chinese women are not allowed to use “human-assisted reproductive technology or related surgeries” of any kind. “Some hospitals allow single women to freeze their eggs,” CCTV added. “But when she wants to use them she needs to bring three official documents: her government I.D., marriage license, and official permission to give birth.” 

The post caused a furor, with over 34,000 responses, many angry. “They must be drunk!” one woman posted on Weibo, using the hashtag #mycountry’ssinglewomen. “An egg belongs to an individual body, not to the state.” Even popular blogger Han Han, recently chary of commenting on political issues, weighed in to exclaim that “women aren’t men’s baby-making machines or portable uteruses.” He pointed out that the child of a single woman is not issued a birth certificate; without it, a child in China will have difficulty applying for residency permits, attending school, and taking advantage of social services. Han later added that birth in wedlock was both a “mainstream” choice and the “best” one, but that China “has to give the non-mainstream crowd the right to make the choice.”

A minority argued that a father is a requirement for a healthy childhood. “To be frank, this could make a child’s development incomplete,” wrote one weibo user. “If you want to be single, that’s enough, don’t hurt the next generation.” Another poster wondered about the ethics of having a doctor combine anonymous sperm with a woman’s egg. “The woman won’t know his last name, she won’t know the facts, and her child won’t know the facts.”

According to the Shanghai Morning Post, the legal basis for the ban on egg freezing goes back to a 2001 Ministry of Health announcement stating that “the application of human-assisted reproductive technology should be carried out for medical purposes and in line with the national family planning policy.” In other words, there is no explicit ban on single women freezing their eggs, but neither is there a way for them to use them after doing so.

For decades, China’s family planning policies, which generally limit households to one child, have put the state at the center of individual fertility decisions. This has meant that birth control pills are available over the counter and abortions relatively easy to obtain in China, even as prevailing attitudes toward sex and family remain conservative. Sex education in the country is so rudimentary that, a few years ago, a cartoon series explaining the ins and outs of reproduction went viral. Attitudes toward sex and dating also tend to enforce traditional gender roles, encouraging women to marry and have children before they turn 30. Women who pass 27 without marrying are widely referred to as “leftover women” even though demographically speaking, China actually has too many men.

On top of all this, China is suffering from infertility problems. Twelve-and-a-half percent of people of childbearing age suffer from fertility problems. The need for sperm is so high that women are paying premiums on the black market.

The limits on egg freezing stand in stark contrast to a promotion run by the e-commerce website Alibaba connecting men to China’s sperm banks, offering around $800 per donation. In 72 hours, more than 22,000 men reportedly signed up. “Not only are men not banned from donating sperm,” the Post opined. “It’s actually encouraged by the government.” If men are paid to donate their sperm to complete strangers, why are women not permitted to freeze their eggs for their own use? One lawyer quoted by the post, Qing Gang, hoped that the public outrage would lead to a change in government policy toward egg freezing and other “human-assisted reproductive technologies.” Although the practice of egg freezing for single women “hasn’t been approved,” lawyer Qing Gang told the Post. “There is also no equivalent ban.… The country should quickly draw up the relevant laws and regulations, and set industry norms to help protect the interests of people with those rights.”

Xu isn’t sure that she will want to use the eggs that she has frozen, but she wants to make sure other women know the option is out there. “This technology exists,” the actress said in her interview. “It can help women overcome some physical limitations; it can help improve family happiness; it doesn’t impact health, under these conditions, why not do it?”

Photo credit: Getty Images

Lauren Hilgers is a New York-based freelance writer who focuses on China.

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