As my 35th birthday approaches, so does my fertility deadline. Photo: Courtesy of Julienne C. Raboca
“Where should we do it? I wanted Taiwan or Bangkok,” my friend said to me. What may sound like a fun weekend girls trip was actually a conversation about flying somewhere to freeze our eggs together. Five years ago, our group of three tried to plan a hiking trip to Kumano Kodo in Japan, but it never materialized. We may end up traveling together in the end—to spend two weeks near an assisted reproductive facility of our choice.
Trends show that more women across Asia are looking at egg freezing to buy them time to pursue personal and career goals prior to motherhood. But despite negative population growth in many parts of the region, governments have refused to lift various restrictions on egg freezing. While most of their western counterparts gave women the green light on the procedure some 10 years ago, most countries in Asia still limit elective egg freezing or harvest in some form.Singapore, for example, only started allowing the procedure for single women aged 21 to 35 this year—prior to this, it was only allowed for medical reasons. Meanwhile, in China, fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and egg freezing are still largely prohibited for unmarried women, even though the country’s population fell in 2022—the first time in decades. In August 2021, Hunan became the first province in China to open up egg freezing, or oocyte cryopreservation, for single women in the country.
The same goes for countries like Thailand and Malaysia, which forbid single women from freezing their eggs. South Korea and Hong Kong, meanwhile—the two states with the world’s lowest birth rates—allow single women to freeze their eggs, but prohibit using them for IVF unless married.The cost of egg freezing can vary widely depending on the country. In Singapore and Hong Kong, you can expect to pay at least $10,000. However, there are some more affordable options in the region, such as in Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan, where prices can range from $3,000 to $6,000. In addition, once the eggs are harvested and frozen, they must also be stored. These fees can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per year, depending on the clinic and location. But the biggest expense are the IVF treatments, which hover around $15,000. In 2011, I moved to Hong Kong from the Philippines, places that, despite their proximity, are on opposite ends of the birth rate spectrum. I’m about to turn 35 and most of my childhood friends in Manila are now married with children, even those who just a few years back told me they weren’t ready for kids. In Hong Kong, I would say more than half of women who are the same age as me remain childless; on average Hong Kong women delay pregnancy the longest compared to the rest of the world.
Why 35? Singapore has its reasons for putting 35 as its upper age limit for egg freezing. According to a new study conducted in China and published in The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research, women over 35 years old are almost 45 percent less likely to get a live birth from egg freezing versus women between 30 to 34 years old. In a way, policymakers in countries like Singapore appear to be encouraging women to freeze their eggs before it becomes a waste of time, energy, and money. The same study recommends that women freeze their eggs before the age of 35, based on clinical data of 78 patients. “We suggest the number of frozen eggs should be around 15 in women younger than 35 years… women over 35 should have a lower expected value of oocyte cryopreservation,” it says. For the latter, the researchers recommend the number of frozen eggs to exceed 21.In Asia, women are also in it alone. Some companies in the United States feature egg freezing as a company benefit, alleviating the financial burden on some women—this is less common in the East. Men don’t seem inclined to help with this either: less than a third of men in Singapore would help their partner foot her egg freezing bill, according to a poll by AsiaOne.
The magic number
I wouldn’t be saying anything new by admitting how difficult it is to come to terms with your own body’s limitations. Since I first heard about the procedure while hiking with a friend who did it in Taiwan eight years ago, I had never seriously considered egg freezing myself. But back then I also said I would rather die than find myself still partying in Lan Kwai Fong at 30, and I ate those words four years ago.
Yoga instructor Chi An, who lived in East Asia for almost 20 years, said kids were never the focus of her life plan. “I was single when I was living in Taiwan, it wasn’t something that was on my radar. I didn’t want to have kids until I found the right partner, so my plan in life was to go with the flow. I wasn’t ready to make those kinds of decisions at the time.”It wasn’t until Chi An met her husband when they were both 40 that they decided they would like to have a family together. “I thought I could have a kid if I wanted,” said Chi An, a vegetarian who trains at an advanced athletic level. “I was very confident. I felt my body could carry a child easily.”Chi An was frustrated when her first cycle only produced one egg. On the second cycle, doctors increased the amount of hormones, which resulted in three eggs, and then four on the third cycle. “I got a total of seven,” said Chi An. “I was really disappointed.” Since starting the process, she has also gotten pregnant naturally three times, but each time resulted in miscarriage.
“My plan in life was never about having kids”
“I remember telling myself in the beginning that I didn’t want to end up feeling sad about anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to be disappointed about the process—like we try and if it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t, it didn’t… and I just needed to go with whatever nature had intended. But it’s harder when you’re involved and you’re trying hard.”
Like Chi An, I have never been sure that I wanted kids. I’ve been mostly on the “rather not” side of the fence for reasons ranging from ethical and psychological to irrational and what is likely to be labeled as selfish.I’m terrified of pregnancy and giving birth. I can’t imagine losing my body for several months and in the end, potentially never getting it back. I love and enjoy my carefree lifestyle. Last year, I lived and worked in Mexico for four months, before moving to Denmark to start my master’s in journalism. This year, I will move to London for my specialization. How am I supposed to do all of this with a child? As things stand, it would be irresponsible to own a pet.When loved ones tell me “parenthood is the best thing that ever happened to me,” I somehow find it difficult to believe, or at least see myself saying that. I don’t envy their lives changing diapers and taking their crying child out of a restaurant (no offense—I wouldn’t take any if you said you wouldn’t want my life either). Whenever I find myself overloaded with work, studies, socializing, paying bills, exercising, building an empire, trying to get enough sleep, and learning a new thing every day, I call my sister up and say: “I don’t know how people with kids do it.”
Do I even want kids?
Two months ago, I was having lunch with a friend a few years older than me. I asked him if he planned to get married or have kids with his girlfriend of seven years, and he said: “I’m still deliberating. On one hand, I don’t know if it’s possible to live a meaningful life without them.” “On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s possible to live a meaningful life with them,” another friend joked.
My friend Stephanie, a single 35-year-old woman of Filipino-Chinese descent, decided to freeze her eggs after finding out that most of her single women friends had done it. She requested to go by a pseudonym because she views oocyte retrieval as personal medical information. “I started talking to different friends, and found out this whole group I was close to had frozen their eggs in the past year or two,” she said. “Most of them just went to this one clinic, and there’s apparently only two major clinics in the Philippines that do it.”After hearing about four of her friends’ experiences, Stephanie decided to take the leap. “It cut out the research factor,” she said. “They were like—do it here, this is what it was like and were encouraging me, saying, ‘You should just do it, not think about it and get it over with.’ That’s when I realized it’s totally doable and these people I know and trust have all done it at this place… I might as well just do it.” According to Stephanie’s friends, the process was straightforward, only taking a few days. “They put you to sleep for around $150 extra, or you can choose not to, and then it’s done,” she said.
All my friends are doing it
Stephanie got four eggs after her first round of egg freezing, and is planning to switch to an OB-GYN at a high-end hospital in Manila charging double the fertility clinic where she first had it done. “The premise is that it’s an insurance policy,” said Stephanie. “So it should be a working, credible insurance policy. If and when I want to use it to get pregnant, and 20 eggs is the recommended number but I only have four, then basically my insurance policy sucks.” In total, Stephanie will be paying around $12,450 for two cycles of egg freezing in the Philippines.
After putting off the decision on whether I want to have kids or not, researching for this article has made the cold, hard facts clear. There is a time limit to realistically setting yourself up for parenthood, and my deadline is coming up. Both Chi An and Stephanie’s recommendations sang to the same tune: Play it safe.“I would say do it in your 30s regardless of whether you have a partner, because the chances of getting a higher volume of healthy eggs are just so much greater,” said Chi An. “It’s different for everyone, I have a student who had a healthy baby at 42. But I think if you can, you really just want to play it on the safe side. You don’t necessarily have to use your eggs, but at least you have them there as an option.”When asked if she would have done anything differently, Stephanie said she would have gone to a doctor first instead of a clinic. “The fertility clinic didn’t do an Anti-Müllerian Hormone Test, which is actually essential,” she said of the test to get a snapshot of a person’s reproductive health conditions.Stephanie’s second recommendation was to not procrastinate too much. “There’s no such thing as a perfect scenario, and people tend to use that to delay when time is key. People only think about it further down the line, but the truth is—and biology and technology tell us—that earlier is better, but 35 is the drop-off point. So if you can do it much earlier than that, then you’re probably going to have better results.”Do I want to shell out more than $10,000, take two weeks of hormone treatments, and undergo surgery to buy myself time? It almost seems less stressful to do the thing I’ve been fighting against my whole life (unplanned pregnancy) than commit my life savings to a procedure with a 39 percent success rate. After turning this over in my head endlessly, I become exhausted trying to fight the losing battle against time and consider releasing control of my destiny, allowing nature to take its course.Follow Julienne C. Raboca on Twitter and Instagram.