SINGAPORE - After years of deliberation, women - regardless of their marital status - will soon be allowed to freeze their eggs for non-medical reasons to preserve their fertility.
Women aged between 21 and 35 can undergo elective egg freezing, which is done for non-medical reasons, with the introduction of the Assisted Reproduction Services Regulations under the Healthcare Services Act early next year (2023).
However, only legally married couples can use their frozen eggs to try for a baby through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).
This is in line with existing IVF rules and the idea of "upholding parenthood within marriage".
The changes, outlined in a White Paper on Singapore Women's Development released on Monday (March 28), mark a major shift in policy.
Now, women can freeze their eggs for only medical reasons, such as when they have to undergo chemotherapy, which may adversely affect their fertility.
Speaking to reporters earlier in March ahead of the White Paper's release, Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, said: "We recognise that there may be women who are not able to find a suitable partner when they are younger, but they still wish to be able to preserve the likelihood of conceiving when they marry later."
However, there will be "adequate safeguards" in place to ensure that women make a well-informed choice, Ms Sun added.
For instance, she said women will be counselled before they freeze their eggs to help them understand the invasive nature of the procedure, limitations such as the low success rates of the procedure leading to a baby being born, and the risk of having babies at an older age, among other things.
Medical research in other countries has found that the chance of a frozen egg leading to a baby being born is about 2 per cent to 12 per cent, Ms Sun said.
The studies also found that a very small proportion of women - less than 10 per cent - use their frozen eggs in the end.
Egg freezing preserves fertility as the age of the eggs remains unchanged from the moment they are frozen.
According to doctors, a woman is born with a finite number of eggs, with the number and quality of eggs declining as she ages.
As such, the chances of a woman getting pregnant decreases as she ages.
As far back as 2012, the Ministry of Health said it was reviewing the medical, scientific and ethical implications of elective egg freezing.
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.
Over the years, there have been calls from women's groups and public figures like Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui to allow for elective egg freezing.
In July last year, the PAP Women's Wing and Young PAP asked the Government to allow elective egg freezing in a position paper on women’s issues.
When asked about the shift in position, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo told reporters: "When the idea first came up in our ground engagements, it caused some discomfort.
"There were worries in certain quarters that making elective egg freezing available would send the wrong signal about marriage and parenthood, that they need not be prioritised and can always be postponed."
But over time, most people came to a better understanding of the motivations of women who would take up the option, she added.
Mrs Teo said the move to allow elective egg freezing is not about raising the total fertility rate, but "empowering women with choice".
When asked about the age limit of 35 for elective egg freezing, Ms Sun said it is aligned with the existing egg donor age limit of 35.
Scientific evidence shows that the quality of a woman’s eggs depreciates significantly after the age of 35, she added.
However, Ms Sun said she would not rule out the possibility of future medical advancements that could lead to changes in the age limits for egg donors and elective egg freezing.
Dr Loh Seong Feei, medical director of Thomson Fertility Centre, said it is “high time” the Government allows elective egg freezing, as women in Singapore are going to Malaysia, Australia and even the United States to freeze their eggs because they cannot do it here.
Dr Loh, who said the age limit of 35 is too restrictive, added that most of his patients contemplating egg freezing are past 35 – and that is when they really start to worry about their biological clock.
Besides, the procedure is costly – about $10,000 a cycle depending on which country it is done in – and women may not be able to afford it when they are younger, he added.
“Egg freezing is not a guarantee to having a baby as it also depends on other factors like whether your womb can carry a pregnancy by the time you want to use your eggs,” he said.