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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Putting Pregnancy on Hold

Dec. 1, 2016

More women in Japan are freezing their eggs, choosing to put off having children in the middle of their careers.

Egg freezing preserves women’s eggs while they’re still young, allowing them to prepare for a future pregnancy. Demand has been growing steadily in Japan and seminars explaining the process are becoming more popular.

A single treatment costs several thousand dollars, but the practice is very popular despite the price -- so much so that it’s hard to book an appointment.

Miyako Kurimoto, the 40-year-old CEO of a clothing company, is planning to freeze her eggs.

"Work is my first priority. I kept thinking that I’d have children when work settled down, but now I’m at an age where there’s not much time left," she says. "I’m desperate.... Egg freezing is my only option."

Kurimoto got married when she was 27, and had a miscarriage 2 years later. She immersed herself in her work in an attempt to get over that painful experience. She divorced when she was 37, but she still feels that she wants to have children someday.

"I want to do everything I can to make my dream of having children come true," Kurimoto says.

Some of her colleagues also see freezing eggs as an alternative.

"I think it reflects the times we live in. I don’t find it odd at all," says a 33-year-old employee.

The growing interest in egg freezing is driven by fear of the deterioration of a woman’s eggs. As a woman gets older the possibility of infertility rises.

Independent investigations by NHK reveal that at least 1,005 women have had their eggs frozen at 44 medical institutions.

How does the process work? A 40-year-old single woman agreed to be filmed during the procedure, so we visited a fertility clinic with her.

"In the future, when I’m infertile, I can say I still have an option. It’s insurance, my hidden option," she says.

For about a week before the eggs are collected, the woman receives daily hormone injections.

"These injections promote the maturation of eggs," a nurse says.

Usually, only one egg matures every month but he hormone injections cause multiple eggs to mature. A week later, the hormone injections have caused the woman’s ovaries to swell to more than twice their normal size.

Usually, her work requires her to stand up some of the time, but she was in so much pain that she asked her supervisor for work that could be done while sitting.

Ten days after the first injection, it's time for the egg-collecting surgery. A needle is passed through the wall of the vagina to the ovary, and the egg cells are suctioned out.

Even under general anesthesia, the body stiffens every time the needle is inserted. Surgery lasts for 30 minutes and 19 eggs are retrieved.

The retrieved eggs are frozen in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees. The combined cost she paid for the procedure was about 9,000 dollars.

However, data shows that frozen eggs very rarely go on to produce children. Of the 1,005 women who have frozen their eggs, only 85 defrosted them for in vitro fertilization and of those only 12 actually gave birth. In other words, most women who froze their eggs left frozen, and didn’t use them.

For this reason, some medical institutions have stopped freezing eggs. Staff at one clinic have frozen the eggs of 32 women since the facility opened 6 years ago, but only one of them gave birth.

Most of the women who sought egg freezing services were around 40 years old. The doctor was aware that hope alone won't lead to childbirth.

"It felt like it was setting up a ladder and then taking it away. Like giving hope, but showing that reality is harsh," says Dr. Toshio Hara. "It didn’t feel right; it didn’t feel like medical treatment.”

The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology officially “does not recommend” egg freezing, because of the risks it poses to a woman’s body. But even so, the number of women choosing to freeze their eggs continues to increase.

NHK reporter Mayumi Makimoto joins anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: So Mayumi, this topic is of high interest among women such as myself. What factors are behind this growing trend of women freezing their eggs?

Makimoto: I think Japan's social structure is the main problem. Although more women are working, they are usually required to work long hours, as men do. When women return to work after giving birth, they find it difficult to get support in furthering their careers because they are working shorter hours. After all, many women delay motherhood because the corporate culture continues to discourage them from working. I think these circumstances push many women to freeze their eggs.

Shibuya: There's definitely a demand, so why doesn't Japan's medical community encourage freezing eggs?

Makimoto: In Japan, the medical community points out that the practice may have harmful effects on women's bodies. However, this is the reason from the medical point of view. Some say that women's aspirations and their rights should be discussed more.

Shibuya: I was surprised to learn that most women don't use their eggs even though they've chosen to freeze them. What's the reason?

Makimoto: In Japan, there may be single women who have children without partners. But under the guidelines, they are not allowed to freeze their eggs unless they are married or are living with a partner.

Shibuya: So how do you think this issue should be dealt with?

Makimoto: Serious discussion is needed on this matter. That's not just from a medical perspective, but also from a social perspective that considers women's rights.