Two weeks ago, the Singapore government presented the White Paper on Women’s Development, and the lifting of egg freezing ban in Singapore was among the new developments and policies proposed.
Since becoming commercially viable around 10 years ago, the technology has mostly remained banned in Singapore except for medical reasons. Now, the government is planning on legalising the technology, though only legally married women can use the frozen eggs to have children.
This has, understandably, caused quite the discussion. Some criticised the government for denying unmarried women from having children through egg freezing, with MP Louis Ng criticising his own party’s policy:
“The government has a whole suite of parenthood policies that expressly exclude single unwed parents. These policies are the Parenthood Tax Relief, the Working Mother’s Child Relief, and the cash component of the Baby Bonus. Are single unwed parents any less a parent? Are unwed working mothers any less a working mother? And are babies of single unwed parents any less a baby?”
But before we lynch the government for their policies, it might be helpful to take a step back and consider the following questions: What are the problems that led to the government proposing this policy? What is the government trying to achieve with this policy? And have similar policies been seen elsewhere in the world, and to what effect?
Pro-natal policy in Singapore
The reason for pro-natal policies in Singapore are simple — Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate is below the replacement level of 2.1, and this has significant implications.
Low fertility rates mean a shrinking population of children, which will eventually translate into less tax revenue for social policies, while a higher burden is placed on government spending to cater to the ageing population.
Population decline follows in a vicious cycle as the sandwich generations need to take care of ageing parents, consider their own careers, and still provide for children.
The declining birth rate has been blamed on multiple factors: social attitudes towards having children, a lack of resources (both time and money) for childcare, and many others.
So what has the government been trying to do to combat this trend?
Singapore has a comprehensive suite of pro-natal policies, and this has even earned Singapore its own feature in the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Policy Responses to Low Fertility.
Specifically, the report highlights that Singapore has actually “gone farther than other countries in many policy areas”, and has done so by focusing on pro-natal policies as part of family policy.
These policies include financial incentives, childcare support, and policies to encourage marriage.
Couples receive tax breaks when they have children, new estates in government housing and residential developments now have childcare facilities. Married couples also receive a housing grant when purchasing government flats.
The latest in this line of developments is of course, the legalisation of egg freezing.
Some companies even sponsor egg freezing for female employees
While egg freezing may be new in Singapore, it really is no stranger to the rest of the world.
Some tech companies in the US already cover egg freezing benefits as a benefit for employees, and Europe’s universal healthcare system provides some fertility treatments free of charge.
Some workplaces even sponsor the entire treatment, with around 10 per cent of employees taking up the offer.
Clearly, offering the policy or at least subsidising egg freezing can encourage some to take up the offer. This may be the case especially since costs for the procedure are high, meaning that those who may want to undergo the procedure may not have the funds to do so, while those who have the funds may already be past the best time to undergo the procedure. As such, subsidies can work to make the treatment more accessible.
If the government’s goal is to increase the fertility of Singaporeans, this may well be a policy worth considering. Healthcare policy is something that Singapore is well-known for, with a full suite of policies including MediSave, MediFund, and MediShield.
At the same time, we should be cautious about the message that such a policy can send. By allowing women to freeze their eggs, are we also suggesting that they should prioritise their careers over their family life? US companies that offer egg freezing have been criticised for this reason, and critics’ views are not unfounded.
The high uptake rates of egg freezing and fertility policies may suggest the possibility that employees really are prioritising work over family, and egg freezing allows them to have their cake and eat it too.
But is this really so bad? At the end of the day, the choice lies with the women who now have access to the technology, which is an advancement rather than a retreat for women’s rights.
Alternatively, one can also see the high uptake in fertility programs including egg freezing as evidence that women do indeed prioritise family life, or at the very least, are looking to prioritise family life later down the line instead of not at all.
Women who do intend to have children later in life can still do so, and fertility may actually rise because of increased fecundity.
Egg freezing is feasible, but the government can do more to help
Singapore, as previously mentioned, is known for the quality of its healthcare system. But as technologies improve, systems must improve with them.
Egg freezing has the potential to provide women in Singapore with tangible improvements in how they prioritise their career and family desires. In fact, while the treatment has not been legal in Singapore, Singaporeans have adapted by travelling overseas to undergo the procedure.
Elective egg freezing can be provided for under MediSave or MediFund, with possibly a government loan to help Singaporeans who wish to undergo the treatment but do not have the funds available.
While this may result in a temporary drawdown on financial reserves, it is by no means permanent — the loans can be repaid once careers stabilise and compensation increases.
In addition to allowing women to freeze their eggs in Singapore, Singaporean women can also take advantage of Singapore’s world-class healthcare system, and receive treatment locally without having to incur additional travelling costs.
Women’s rights have indeed come a significant way since the adoption of the Women’s Charter in 1961, but we must not rest on our laurels if we are to achieve true gender equality.
The inequality of the biological clock is no exception, an opportunity to remedy this inequality has been presented to us. Egg freezing has the potential to allow women greater freedom in their choice of priorities.
There is already a working model from other countries and Singapore excels at studying and tweaking the policies seen in other countries to benefit Singaporeans. With egg freezing, there is an opportunity to do the same, and we should take full advantage of this opportunity.
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