Egg freezing in China: A woman’s right to have control over her body

Currently in China, assisted reproductive technology (ART) can only be applied to married couples with infertility issues. Social egg freezing (SEF) is prohibited in most regions of China, except Jilin province. The case of Xu Zaozao, a single lady who sought to freeze her eggs, has cast more attention on this issue. Chinese academic Lorna Wei points out that even as women advocate for the right to decide if she would like to freeze her eggs, they may be stuck in a continuing patriarchal trap.
A woman walks on a street in Shanghai, China, on 15 May 2023. (Aly Song/Reuters)
A woman walks on a street in Shanghai, China, on 15 May 2023. (Aly Song/Reuters)

On 22 June 2023, Lost in the Stars (消失的她 Xiaoshi de ta) hit the cinemas in mainland China. Some netizens accused this movie of causing discord between husband and wife and making China’s low fertility rate even worse. China, once the most populous country, now has a declining birth rate, with 6.77 births per 1,000 people in 2022, compared to 7.52 births in 2021.  

From the one-child policy (1980-2016) to the two-child policy (2016-2021) and the three-child policy (2021 to now), China’s fertility policy has evolved in the last four decades. Chinese citizens’ thinking on this subject has changed throughout the years as well. Against this backdrop, Xu Zaozao’s case drew nationwide attention in May 2023.

For single women like Xu Zaozao, social egg freezing (SEF) is prohibited in most regions of China, except Jilin province. 

Marriage a precondition

In 2018, Xu Zaozao sought to freeze her eggs at the Beijing Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital (affiliated with the Capital Medical University). However, the hospital refused her request because she was not married. Feeling unfairly treated, Xu sued the hospital in 2019 but her case was dismissed at the preliminary stage on 22 July 2022. After continued appeals, Xu’s case went through to the second stage on 9 May 2023. 

Egg freezing as a means of assisted reproductive technology (ART) is confined to medical egg freezing in mainland China. In other words, ART can only be applied to married couples with infertility issues, according to the Guidelines on Artificial Assisted Reproductive Technology promulgated by the Ministry of Health in 2003. For single women like Xu Zaozao, social egg freezing (SEF) is prohibited in most regions of China, except Jilin province. 

Teresa Xu, also known as Xu Zaozao, speaks to the media before a second hearing of her case suing a Beijing hospital for refusing to freeze her eggs on the basis that she is unmarried, at the Beijing Third Intermediate People's Court in Beijing, China on 9 May 2023. (Jade Gao/AFP)
Teresa Xu, also known as Xu Zaozao, speaks to the media before a second hearing of her case suing a Beijing hospital for refusing to freeze her eggs on the basis that she is unmarried, at the Beijing Third Intermediate People's Court in Beijing, China on 9 May 2023. (Jade Gao/AFP)

“Allowing single women to freeze their eggs under certain conditions” has also been a concern raised by members of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). During the Two Sessions (meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and CPPCC) in 2020, Peng Jing proposed that single women should also enjoy the rights of ART, especially egg freezing. 

Similarly, at the Two Sessions of 2023, Hua Yawei and Jin Li also agreed with Peng’s proposal, while Xu Congjian maintained that there must be certain restrictions on single women’s egg freezing. Also, Professor Shi Jiayou at Renmin University added that the Guidelines were issued two decades ago, which was apparently out of date. “The Guidelines are not the law, but merely a departmental technical specification,” said Shi. “But in medical practice, hospitals must conform to the Guidelines. Otherwise, the National Health Commission would punish those hospitals, which is of serious consequence.”

... one major concern of egg freezing in China is that it may commercialise women’s bodies, which further endangers gender equality.

Chinese women want full control over their bodies

It seems that China is not ready to fully implement social egg freezing, even though there are supportive voices from both citizens and governors. Besides the high risks in the medical process, e.g. egg retrieval, preservation and re-implantation, one major concern of egg freezing in China is that it may commercialise women’s bodies, which further endangers gender equality. Li Sanhu, a professor at the party school of the Communist Party of China Guangzhou Municipal Committee, said in his 2013 article (《技术与身体政治: 现象学视角》Technology and Body Politics: A Phenomenological Perspective): “From the feminist point of view, any development of reproductive technology is nothing more than turning the woman’s body into a laboratory for the industrial production of life, or turning the woman’s uterus into an ‘operating room’.”

People walk on a street in Shanghai, China on 11 July 2023. (Aly Song/Reuters)
People walk on a street in Shanghai, China, on 11 July 2023. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Another bone of contention is the motivation for egg freezing. On the positive side, egg freezing is perceived as an insurance or guarantee for single women. As Xu Zaozao said in one interview: “I don’t want to be written about as an older young woman who can’t have children now or who can’t find a partner because of various reasons, and thus must be able to have children in order to secure a partner in the future. I want people to see that I am a woman who holds a key to my own body. And it’s important to have the right to hold my own key.” In the same vein, some female netizens expressed their desire to completely control their bodies and prioritise their health rights: “The reason why most people find the ‘no-egg-freezing for single women’ disgusting is that it is proposed on the basis of marital status, rather than taking the consequences on women’s health into consideration.”

... egg freezing may not necessarily empower women with more freedom or independence, but could reinforce their traditional gender role of giving birth.

Still stuck in a patriarchal trap

However, most single women who have frozen their eggs overseas still cannot escape the patriarchal trap. Zhang Wenting and Tang Xuanxuan analysed diary entries of overseas egg-freezing experiences written by 56 female users in Chinese online community Xiaohongshu. Among them, they found transcripts of semi-structured interviews with 15 young adults. The study showed that Chinese women chose egg freezing to manage time, balance family and career, and have more opportunities for being a mother. Their decisions to freeze their eggs were influenced by Chinese family traditions, their husbands’ wishes, and their desire to better fulfil their reproduction responsibilities. Such anecdotal findings suggest that egg freezing may not necessarily empower women with more freedom or independence, but could reinforce their traditional gender role of giving birth. To a large extent, egg freezing is just another prop for women to perform as good wives and mothers. Mindsets need to change, not just the egg freezing laws.

We are the masters of our own bodies and we have the right to hold the key to our own bodies. 

A nurse takes care of a newborn baby at a hospital in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, China on 12 May 2023. (AFP)
A nurse takes care of a newborn baby at a hospital in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, China on 12 May 2023. (AFP)

Although we do not know the outcome of Xu Zaozao’s case yet, Xu is pessimistic about it. To be sure, there will be more discussions on the risks of egg freezing, the legal restrictions on marital status and the life choices of single women. Besides these social, legal or personal factors, we should not forget one simple fact: women’s choices should not be bound by marriage, giving birth or the expectations of being a woman. We are the masters of our own bodies and we have the right to hold the key to our own bodies. 

Related: A woman's right to freeze her eggs: Chinese society debates | Gender equality: The solution to China’s declining birth rate | Why Chinese women are unwilling to give birth | China wants to reverse its high abortion rate with pro-birth policies, and young women are not happy | A Chinese woman's status and the one-child policy