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Why Does the Singaporean Government Care About Egg Freezing?

The city-state’s ban on the procedure is making its demographic problems worse.

By , a Singaporean freelance journalist based in London.
Staff at the KL Fertility Centre demonstrate the egg freezing procedure for members of the media in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 11. A growing number of women in Singapore are traveling overseas to clinics such as this one to freeze their eggs.
Staff at the KL Fertility Centre demonstrate the egg freezing procedure for members of the media in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 11. A growing number of women in Singapore are traveling overseas to clinics such as this one to freeze their eggs. SAM REEVES/AFP via Getty Images

Singapore has been trying to boost its birth rate for decades but keeps a tight grip on women’s reproductive choices. Egg freezing, in which eggs are harvested and stored for future use, is prohibited in the country under a ban with few exceptions. Many women were unaware of this law until a social media storm erupted earlier this year: The National Council of Churches of Singapore called egg freezing a “profoundly selfish act”; the city-state’s leading gender equality advocacy group, the Association of Women for Action and Research, then released a statement pushing the government to reconsider its long-held stance. But if past discussions on the topic are anything to go by, this will likely lead to the same outcome: The ban remains.

Oocyte cryopreservation, which is the technical term for the procedure, has come a long way since it was first developed in the 1980s. It was considered experimental by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine until 2012, and today, the procedure is still by no means a guarantee. According to the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, only about 1 in 5 in vitro fertilization treatment (IVF) cycles using a woman’s own frozen eggs are successful. Yet, knowing it will be an expensive gamble, Singaporeans still want the option. A survey conducted in 2019 found that more than 6 in 10 respondents supported egg freezing. An online petition for lifting the ban has garnered more than 8,000 signatures.

The government’s outlawing of the procedure has come to illustrate just another form of social control in Singapore. In turn, the growing pushback from society represents a desire to wrestle free from it.

Singapore has been trying to boost its birth rate for decades but keeps a tight grip on women’s reproductive choices. Egg freezing, in which eggs are harvested and stored for future use, is prohibited in the country under a ban with few exceptions. Many women were unaware of this law until a social media storm erupted earlier this year: The National Council of Churches of Singapore called egg freezing a “profoundly selfish act”; the city-state’s leading gender equality advocacy group, the Association of Women for Action and Research, then released a statement pushing the government to reconsider its long-held stance. But if past discussions on the topic are anything to go by, this will likely lead to the same outcome: The ban remains.

Oocyte cryopreservation, which is the technical term for the procedure, has come a long way since it was first developed in the 1980s. It was considered experimental by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine until 2012, and today, the procedure is still by no means a guarantee. According to the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, only about 1 in 5 in vitro fertilization treatment (IVF) cycles using a woman’s own frozen eggs are successful. Yet, knowing it will be an expensive gamble, Singaporeans still want the option. A survey conducted in 2019 found that more than 6 in 10 respondents supported egg freezing. An online petition for lifting the ban has garnered more than 8,000 signatures.

The government’s outlawing of the procedure has come to illustrate just another form of social control in Singapore. In turn, the growing pushback from society represents a desire to wrestle free from it.

In Singapore, a woman’s marital status largely determines her fertility choices. Even for the wealthy, single women can’t receive assisted reproductive technology therapies that are popular worldwide, including IVF and intrauterine insemination. Such procedures are available only to married, heterosexual women (as Singapore does not recognize same-sex unions). Access to donor sperm is likewise restricted to married women. The national message is clear: Have children, but have them as part of a traditional family unit.

Population planning in Singapore has had a winding path. Fearing an overburdened economy after gaining independence in 1965, the government intervened with aggressive anti-natal policies to slow the postwar baby boom. Most family planning methods, including sterilization and abortion—both still legal in the city-state today—were encouraged and at times financially rewarded. Some women, for example, received stipends for undergoing tubal ligation after their first or second birth.

Disincentives were also piled on. Families with more than the recommended two children had to shoulder medical bills that increased with each birth, paying more with each delivery. They were also lower on the priority list for subsidized housing.

The efforts to stem population growth were exceedingly successful. The number of births per 1,000 people nearly halved (from 29.5 to 16.6) in the following two decades. In fact, they worked so well that Singapore’s fertility rate in the 1980s was falling to a point the population couldn’t sustain itself.

In Singapore, a woman’s marital status largely determines her fertility choices.

So the government backpedaled: The now-infamous “Stop at Two” campaign—with its “One/ Two/ And that’s ideal” jingle—was replaced in 1987 with the less catchy and less effective “Have three or more if you can afford it.” Along with that campaign came a dramatic reversal of policies that defrayed the high costs of having children. Today, under the Marriage and Parenthood Package, households with two children are eligible to enjoy up to 166,000 Singapore dollars ($123,000) worth of incentives, in the form of cash rebates, child care subsidies, and paid parental leave.

But the mindset the government instilled in Singaporeans in the 1960s has been hard to undo, even as it’s since ramped up its pro-natalist efforts. The socioeconomic case for having fewer children—or none at all—has stuck. Declining birth rates from the 1980s never recovered, dipping to a historic low of 1.1 per woman last year, not even half the recent global average of 2.4. It is a worrying trend on its own, but, combined with a rapidly aging population, old fears of an overburdened economy have resurfaced.

Today, Singaporeans, especially women, are putting marriage and parenthood on the back burner in favor of building a career or simply out of a lack of a suitable partner. From 2010 to 2020, the percentage of single women increased across all age groups, but especially for those aged 25 to 29. A report published by the Department of Statistics noted a correlation between the drop and more women receiving university educations.

Changing family demographics also play a role in rethinking parenthood. Singaporean society has slowly progressed beyond traditional gender roles, where mothers stay at home as primary caregivers. Dual-income households are now the norm, having doubled from just 27 percent of all households in 1980 to 52.5 percent in 2020. Whether and when to have children has become a decision with much higher stakes.

Crucially, time is not on women’s side in this decision. Not only do people who can bear children’s egg counts diminish throughout their lives—300,000 by puberty, 25,000 by 37 years old, 1,000 by 51 years old—but so too does the quality. Genetically abnormal eggs, which often either fail to implant or result in miscarriage when fertilized, increase exponentially after age 30. Many women find themselves in the predicament of feeling unready to be a parent but being painfully aware of the race against time.

Currently, a woman can only freeze her eggs in Singapore if she’s receiving treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, that might affect her fertility. While egg freezing is certainly no guarantee of a baby, providing Singaporean women greater options during their most fertile years will help to relieve these pressures. Legalizing the procedure would also ensure that it is carried out safely and transparently.

Although the Singaporean government currently stands firm on the ban, the women’s and youth wings of the ruling People’s Action Party recently urged a review of its position, citing “an urgent need” to do so. A response from the government may be coming early next year as part of a larger white paper that will be introduced in Parliament. But while it promises to review “women-related issues that Singaporeans are concerned with,” whether the law on egg freezing will change is anyone’s guess.

Before this year, the closest thing to a breakthrough came in 2019 when the government said it was “carefully reviewing” the possibility of allowing elective egg freezing outside the confines of medical reasons, acknowledging that the technology has “become more established.” A year later, the Ministry of Social and Family Development, a government body responsible for evaluating public policies to “nurture resilient individuals, strong families, and a caring society,” reiterated that it was reconsidering the ban.

But, in the same breath, the ministry repeated old justifications: “The Government supports and encourages Singaporeans to fulfil their marriage and parenthood goals as early as possible,” it said. “[W]e also have to take into account the ethical and social concerns over legalising social egg freezing, including inadvertently causing more to delay marriage or parenthood based on a misperception that they can have a child whenever they wish to.”

The legalization of egg freezing for all would serve not only the interests of a society that is increasingly demonstrating a desire for the reproductive right to choose, as well as those of a country eager to raise its fertility rate. And in the end, it wouldn’t matter why the government changes its stance: Even if it were done primarily to boost birth rates, the move would still allow many women the reproductive freedom they long for.

In the meantime, however, the clock remains ticking for women who just want to chart their own timeline.

Samantha HuiQi Yow is a Singaporean freelance journalist currently based in London. She was previously with the Economist Intelligence Unit. Twitter: @samhuiqiyow

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