An increasing number of Chinese women are choosing to have children later in life, but experts are warning that postponing pregnancy can lead to a host of problems and are urging potential mothers to think carefully before opting for techniques such as egg freezing, as Shan Juan reports.
Liu Feiyu is planning a trip to Saipan. She'll stay for five nights, but it will be nothing like her previous visit to the US-administered tropical island resort, which was purely for fun. "This time, it'll be an egg freezing adventure," the 35-year-old said.
Liu, marketing director of the Beijing branch of a Belgian multinational, divorced last year. She's now in a relationship, but is wary of committing too quickly.
"I won't marry until I'm 100 per cent sure he's 'the one'. But my biological clock, especially my fertility, may not be able to wait long enough to allow an easy conception or a healthy baby," she said.
Inspired by Xu Jinglei, a 41-year-old Chinese actress who stored her eggs at a clinic in the US to extend her fertility, Liu spoke to a number of local clinics to investigate Oocyte Cryopreservation, or egg freezing, but was turned away because she's unmarried.
During egg freezing, young, unfertilized eggs are harvested from the ovaries, then frozen and stored for later use. Eggs can be thawed, fertilized by sperm in a lab and implanted in the uterus via in vitro fertilization techniques.
The uterus ages quite slowly and healthy ones can nurture a foetus even if the woman has already been through the menopause.
Liu's problem is that egg freezing is classified as a supplementary IVF measure in China, and the procedure is only available to married women.
The women must also have a valid reproduction permit, as stipulated by the Assisted Reproductive Technology Regulation issued by the National Health and Family Planning Commission, the country's top health body.
The only exceptions are women with conditions such as premature ovarian failure, or those undergoing chemoradiation therapy for cancer. Freezing eggs solely for the purpose of preserving or extending fertility is illegal, the regulation states.
Tormented by rejection
"I couldn't sleep after the clinics rejected me. I was tormented by the idea that I would probably be incapable of producing healthy eggs as I got older," Liu said. "I'm longing for a family, a child of my own, but I'm not sure when."
Online research led her to Baobaole, or "Baby Baby Happiness", an agency that introduces Chinese couples and single women to fertility centres in the US and Thailand, where egg-freezing services are freely available.
The agency has offices in major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou in Guangdong province, and Changchun, the capital of Jilin province.
Liu spent days weighing the pros and cons of traveling to Saipan. One of the main stumbling blocks was the cost; in China, the treatment costs less than 15,000 yuan (S$3,000).
That's a fraction of the 170,000-yuan price tag for the agency's six-day package, which includes preparatory procedures, such as medical checks in Beijing, round-trip airfare, egg retrieval, five nights at a hotel, and a year's storage of the eggs. On average, six to 12 eggs are retrieved for freezing.
If the eggs are stored for longer than 12 months, further storage costs US$5,000 (S$7,000) per year, and there will be extra charges for thawing the eggs and IVF treatment, according to a Baobaole customer manager surnamed Feng.
"Demand for purely egg-freezing services has risen substantially in recent years, but it's still a small part of our business. Most of our work involves IVF, surrogacy and gender selection," he said.
Qin Lang, a physician at the Reproductive Medical Center of the West China Second University Hospital, a top-flight fertility centre in Chengdu, Sichuan province, said a growing number of women share Liu's plight.
"We've seen a sharp rise in requests for egg freezing from single women, mostly working women from large cities, but the government's rules mean we have to turn them down," said Qin, whose centre performs more than 5,000 IVF treatments every year, and is ranked in the top five of the 356 fertility centres licensed by the NHFPC.