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In the first case of its kind, a Chinese court has ruled against an unmarried woman who sued a hospital that refused to freeze her eggs – sparking a debate over gender equality in the country.
Xu Zaozao was age 30 and unmarried in 2018 when a doctor at the Beijing Obstetrics and Gynaecology Hospital at Capital Medical University refused to freeze her eggs – a procedure that is banned in China for single women. Xu, who says the doctor told her to get married and have children instead, sued the hospital the following year arguing the decision was unfair.
The Chaoyang District People’s court ruled against her on July 22 this year, saying the hospital had been right to refuse the request – dashing her hopes and igniting social media arguments over whether the laws surrounding assisted reproduction discriminate against single women.
Rules issued by China’s National Health Commission in the early 2000s allow single men to freeze their sperm, but block single women from freezing their eggs.
Many people reacted angrily to the verdict against Xu on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo.
“A single woman can’t freeze (her eggs) but a single man is allowed to freeze (his sperm)? What a double standard!” said one user.
Another said, “Why can’t women freeze their eggs? Why can men store their sperm? It is difficult for women to conceive after the age of 40.”
Health officials have defended the policy by claiming egg collection, as opposed to sperm collection, and giving birth at an older age involve health risks – reasons the health commission cites as justification for the ban.
While the usual process to extract sperm is relatively simple and rarely involves surgery, egg freezing requires hormone injections and an egg retrieval procedure that takes place under anesthesia.
However, some experts in China have argued the procedure, which is widely practiced around the world, is no more dangerous for a single woman than it is a married one and question whether the risks cited in current regulations justify the ban.
In a 2015 peer-reviewed article, Sun Xiaoxi, deputy director of the Genetics & IVF Institute at Fudan University’s Obstetrics & Gynecology Hospital, said the risks associated with egg freezing were “small probability events.”
China’s population problems
The case comes amid a growing demographic crisis that has seen authorities step up efforts to encourage couples to have more children – including by scrapping China’s controversial one-child policy in 2015 and last year allowing families to have three children.
These efforts have met with limited success, highlighting gender inequality and economic pressures facing families in China instead.
While the egg freezing ban may appear at odds with the Chinese government’s push to raise its birth rate, part of the authorities’ reticence to allow the procedure for single women is that they see egg freezing as a way of delaying pregnancy rather than facilitating it.
An official notice last year from China’s National Health Commission listed several medical and ethical reasons why the ban should stay, including that it could give women false hope of delaying their reproduction plans.
But advocates have spoken out in favor of lifting the ban as an issue of women’s rights, amid a larger debate around gender equality that’s grown in China during recent years. Others question the idea that the technology would have a negative impact on birth rates.
In a March 2021 paper, Huang Wenzheng, a senior researcher specializing in demographic studies at the Center for China & Globalization think tank, argued that allowing egg freezing for unmarried women older than 35 could help boost the Chinese population.
“(These women) might lose the chance of ever getting pregnant without access to this technology,” he wrote.
Xu, for one, will continue to fight for change. After the court’s ruling, she vowed to appeal the decision, state-run outlet The Paper reported.
“This (initial decision) from the court may not seem very supportive … but it takes time for change,” Xu said.
CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.