In 2020, Singapore recorded her lowest ever Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 1.1. Although, this anomaly maybe partly attributed to disruption of normal social and economic life by the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s TFR has in fact been sliding downwards over the past few years, due to the increasing societal trend of late marriages and delayed childbearing within the country. This in turn have caused much consternation among government policymakers, as Singapore’s future economic prospects, social stability and security maybe severely compromised by the impending transition into a super-aged society brought about by this demographic crunch.

To counter this worrying demographic trend, the Youth and Women’s wing of the ruling People’s Action Party called for lifting of the ban on social egg freezing, in which eggs are harvested from single women and stored for future use. Proponents of this elective medical procedure often point to the fact that the competitive and fast-paced society that we live in, coupled with the high costs of living, childcare and education, exert unique pressures on women that make it difficult for them to start a family at an younger age, until their financial situation become more secure with further career progression and accumulation of more savings.

However, virtually all discussion have so far focused on single women, those who either have never been married or divorced. There have been no talk of extending this fertility preservation option to married women. At present, married women undergoing IVF (in vitro fertilization) treatment in Singapore, are expected to have all their surgically-extracted eggs fertilized by their husband’s sperm to produce embryos, some of which are transferred into the patient’s womb, while remaining excess embryos are frozen for future use.

It is only under exceptional circumstances that IVF clinics in Singapore would freeze the unfertilized eggs of married women. For example, failure to obtain a usable sperm sample from the husband on the day of egg extraction surgery, most commonly due to ejaculation failure arising from stress. Excess unfertilized eggs are also allowed to be frozen, if the couple have strong conscientious objections against the disposal (culling) of unused frozen embryos, which is viewed by some religions to be wanton destruction of human life.

Nevertheless, some married women may want to undergo elective egg freezing due to certain overriding personal circumstances. Most notably, women in the midst of undergoing a divorce may want to preserve their fertility. Under Singapore law, 3 years of separation is required for divorce with both parties’ consent; while for contested divorce by one party, there is a mandatory separation period of 4 years. Even for divorce due to desertion by one spouse, there is a minimum waiting period of 2 years. Hence, such “legally still married” women maybe placed in limbo and be unable to undergo elective egg freezing for fertility preservation, even if the current ban on the procedure is lifted.

Thus, This would put their hopes of having a child in the future at risk, particularly if they are aged between their mid-thirties to early forties. Such women cannot afford to wait any longer, yet they can neither marry nor freeze their eggs because they are still considered married under the law’s eyes, until the divorce process is completed.

Moreover, it must be also be noted that not all women are financially ready to have children immediately or shortly after marriage. Due to high property prices and expensive childcare costs, some couples may prefer to delay childbearing to build up their savings or advance their careers, before starting a family. Current IVF regulations established by the Ministry of Health (MOH), are not conducive for such couples to preserve their fertility, by either freezing their embryos or unfertilized eggs.

To avoid the possibility of legal custody disputes over frozen embryos upon separation or divorce, it may be preferable for married women to freeze their unfertilized eggs instead of embryos for fertility preservation. After all, many newly-married couples who are not yet financially ready for childbearing are unsure whether they will remain hitched for life, given that divorce rates in Singapore have been increasing over recent years.

Hence, it is imperative that current deliberations by the government to lift the ban on social egg freezing should also consider extending such fertility preservation options to married women. While egg freezing certainly cannot guarantee a baby, providing married women with more family planning options via this elective medical procedure will relieve pressures on them, and ensure a more financially-stable environment for child-rearing.

Dr. Alexis Heng Boon Chin

Biography

Dr Alexis Heng Boon Chin is an associate professor of Biomedical Science at Peking University, China. He had previously worked in the field of human clinical assisted reproduction research in Singapore, and has authored 50 international journal publications on ethical and legal issues relating to new reproductive technologies, in addition to also having published more than 250 scientific journal articles.

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