The Paradigm Shift Beneath the Policy Shift
It is not difficult to see how the law in a functioning democracy reflects the public’s values and moral perspectives. A change in policy, therefore, signals a shift in the underlying public morality.
Till now, only women with medical issues that may permanently affect their fertility have been able to have their eggs frozen in Singapore. These issues include gynaecological surgery to remove tumours affecting the ovaries, uterus and/or fallopian tubes, chemotherapy, which can damage a woman’s eggs, and radiotherapy in the pelvic region that may induce premature menopause.
Under these more restrictive cases, ARTs were intended as a means of last resort, and women were permitted to artificially preserve their fertility only in exceptional circumstances. Domestic policy around parenthood and child-bearing has been similarly conservative, save for abortion. When it comes to surrogacy, IVF, and adoption, for instance, Singapore adopts a restrictive policy posture, foregrounding the best interests of the child. These interests may include the child’s rights to their biological mother and father, the avoidance of the commodification of children, and other conditions prioritising child welfare.
With the recent change, however, technology once used to solve medical problems will now be used to meet social and aspirational wants, like the desire to delay pregnancy for relational, financial, professional, or educational reasons. While some of these circumstances might have more emotive persuasiveness, others are prima facie more self-serving pursuits that necessarily come at the expense of giving prospective children the best years of their lives. The shift away from access to egg freezing for medical reasons only reinforces the general idea that children come second to serving the interests of adults.
Avoiding the Oversimplification Trap
Mertes suggests that a nuanced critique of EEF need not resort to broad-stroke stereotyping, nor force a jaundiced view of healthy women who would pursue EEF. Conversely, one’s personal bias toward women having more reproductive options should not lead to an uncritical, rose-tinted approval of the use of EEF.
For one, not all women who would pursue EEF can easily be said to be “selfish career-pursuing women”. In the same way, women are not simply victims of a male-oriented society who have no choice but to resort to EEF.
Instead of judging them as “selfish career-pursuing women”, one should take into account that though the demographic of women pursuing EEF is wealthy and highly educated, these women do not request egg freezing at a young age with the intent of putting motherhood on hold in order to pursue their careers. Rather, through circumstances, they have found themselves older and in a position of wanting to be parents but not having found the right partner. These women cling to EEF as a lifeline to preserve their last shot at becoming biological mothers.
Should women in such straits not have our compassion? Granted, the lack of a partner may be due at least in part to investing a lot of time in their education and careers, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that it was wrong for these women to invest in their education and career since these too were goods in themselves and since it is not the sole lot of a woman to give birth. In truth, the ten optimal years between 25 and 35 go by in a flash for many upwardly mobile men and women alike.
On the flip side, we should not neglect to ask what the policy shift around how ARTs can legally be used says about the values surrounding childbirth and family formation.
Perhaps we might find clues in the statements made around the change.
In 2019, the Ministry of Social and Family Development said it was “carefully reviewing” the possibility of allowing elective egg freezing as it may benefit some women because of their personal circumstances, such as not having met Mr Right yet.
In explaining the policy shift, Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling, echoing the text of the White Paper said, “We came to recognise that there are a group of women who were concerned that they were not able to find a suitable life partner when they were younger, but they still wanted to preserve their fertility. So the government took a look at the various options and decided there was no medical reason to restrict EEF for women because it is medically viable.”
Are there reasons apart from medical ones which deserve consideration prior to legalising EEF? Plenty. But for the sake of this piece, let’s zoom in on one.