Infertility no longer a “choice” for women

Posted on November 22, 2010.

By Satoko Nagaoki, associate professor.
Reproduction rights, Gender and Women`s Studies

p4091328_The Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering Resistance(Finrrage), was started in 1985 by a small group of women from all over the world. They made pregnancy a choice for women and I was invited as one of the participants. In 1991, I became one of the founding members of the Japanese organization。Our concept was to build a infertile women’s self-help group, name of “The friends of Finrrage”.
In Japan, the “friends of Finrrage” movement became a pioneer to discuss the taboo issue of infertility in public and thus a landmark in the feminist campaign. Unlike other countries, we had to start from scratch to bring the concept of reproductive rights to women here. Japanese culture was heavily gender divided and still is, though in big cities women are gaining equality in some areas. Women are still expected to be good wives and mothers and when we started our advocacy on reproduction rights we were aware the subject had to be discussed against our own traditional social norms. Till then, the feminist movement was more involved in fighting the other issues of gender equality such as job discrimination which was crucial for Japanese women who were beginning to enter the male-dominated job market.
Against such a backdrop reproduction rights in Japan moved slightly away from its focus on giving women a choice in starting a family. Dealing with infertility became more important for women and therefore our work was to discuss the social and medical technologies involved with reproduction. For example, abortion is legal up to 22weeks, and is used widely by women in Japan, creating the concept that reproduction technology is a choice. Also, women go to USA seeking test-tube conception that is available for women. But such treatment carefully mask the other side of new technology—the fact that the technologies represents the social pressure on Japanese women to have children. This is why the friends of Finrrage Japan has focused on infertility treatment as intensifying the pressure on women to have babies for this is what is expected of them in Japan.

When we first started our work “friends of Finrrage Japan” became popular because we offered the only place for women to talk about their problems with infertility. Upto then, the situation was such that it was not possible for women to discuss infertility among their family or friends. Many women suffered in silence when they found out they could not get pregnant. They blamed themselves for not fulfilling their duty as a woman. This is why they came to us. At the friends of Finrrage we discussed infertility as a social issue and the focus of our sessions was on helping women to realize that it was okay for them to not have children. We also showed them examples from other countries that proved that many couples who were still happy despite being childless.

In the nineties our organization expanded rapidly and we had more than one thousand members of which the huge majority were women who grappled with infertility. We met regularly and discussed personal family issues and the pressure they faced to get pregnant. We also analyzed the various medical treatment options and invited experts to explain the technologies to our members. We also started spousal counseling meetings but that did not get off the ground because husbands were reluctant to join us. It just shows how socially taboo the topic of infertility was and in some ways is still so, though, modern city life in Japan has changed a lot.

Today we have a situation where women are marrying later and have their first babies in their late thirties or even in the forties. The result is the growing popularity of infertility treatment in Japan. Japan does not recognize egg donation and surrogacy so rich Japanese couples are seeking egg donation and surrogacy in poorer Asian countries. And the rather unfortunate result is that the “friends of Finrrage Japan” that seeks to discuss infertility as a woman`s choice, is not that sought after as we were.. Our membership has dropped to less than 200 now. The difficult situation is because of the growing support, medically and by the government facing dwindling birth rates, to make infertility a business rather than a choice. Take for the example, the pertinent example of the Nobel Prize for Medicine this year was awarded to honor vitro fertilization. The award has only joined the posters of happy mothers with babies to increase pressure on women,
I now teach women’s studies in a university where most of my students are male. These young men take my classes because they support gender equality. Many of them say they want to participate in the rearing of their children and want to spend time with housework and cooking. The problem is the Japanese corporate system. Once they start jobs, they have to work late hours leaving them little time to spend with their families. This system is what must be changed if we are to develop gender equality in Japan.
Thank you.