March 16, 2019 08:24:36
Xiao Chen, left, and her wife Winky with their twin daughters Phoebe and Sarah in a Shenzhen park. (Supplied)
Dressed in matching floral cotton dresses, Phoebe and Sarah hold hands and race through the park like excitable birds, playing until the sun disappears.
They stand out from other Chinese kids in the park — they’re Eurasian, prompting occasional questions from other parents about whether they have a Western father. It’s a question Xiao Chen would rather not answer. As a lesbian mother of kids who are seen as illegitimate under Chinese law, it’s not something she likes to discuss with strangers in the park.
They want to send Phoebe and Sarah to day care, but they haven’t been able to obtain a “hukou” — household registration certificate — for the twins. The certificate, widely seen as outdated, determines a child‘s access to education, healthcare and social benefits.
Without hukou, Phoebe and Sarah don’t legally exist in China.
China’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest point since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, although the government has allowed urban couples to have two children since 2016 to offset the rapidly growing ageing population. (In rural areas, parents were not subject to the one-child policy).
Birth rates in China are still dropping despite government intervention. (Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon, file)
Having been rejected by public hospitals that offered IVF, Xiao Chen and Winky found a private hospital in Beijing that didn’t require all the certificates, although they still faced discrimination from nurses and doctors. Ultimately, Xiao Chen didn’t get pregnant and they lost a lot of money in the process.
In late 2013, they went to Thailand. Just as they finalised preparations, they were told the Thai government had abruptly banned IVF due to a scandal involving Australian parents abandoning a surrogate baby with Down syndrome.
A few months later, they were told they could try again. They quickly flew to Bangkok and had an embryo implanted. Unfortunately, Xiao Chen caught a cold, and the embryo was not strong enough to survive. On their third attempt, the Thai doctor implanted two embryos and their persistence was rewarded with twins.
“Everyone thought it was a perfect end to the story, but it wasn’t,” says Xiao Chen.
Winky (left) and Xiao Chen (right) with their twin daughters Phoebe and Sarah. (Supplied)
With the assistance of friends and an NGO, Xiao Chen and Winky paid a significant amount of money to get the twins back to China.
In early 2016, the Chinese State Council quietly issued a new regulation that allowed parents to register “illegitimate” children to the hukou system using their birth certificate or a paternity testing certificate.
The fine can range from three to six times the annual average income in each city.
“I pay birth insurance each year to the national insurance system, but the public hospital told me I could not enjoy the discount like other married women because I am a single mother,” says Xiao Chen.
Already it has cost the couple about 260,000 yuan ($54,500) for multiple IVF trips overseas.
Still, she says “it’s totally worth it.”
‘I can’t wait any longer’
Egg freezing in the US costs about 85,000 yuan ($17,800) while the IVF process starts at 135,000 yuan ($28,300). It’s a privilege reserved for the middle class.
Lim Li, chief executive of TrueBaby Reproductive Advisory in Shanghai, says the number of Chinese women who want to go overseas to get IVF or egg-freezing has increased by 10 per cent each year for the past four years.
“Our single female customers are aged 30 to 42. They are usually well-educated, have a good job or are in a good economic situation,” he says.
One woman, 27-year-old Beijing resident A Lan, recently wrote a letter to a deputy of the National People’s Congress (NPC) to propose that all Chinese sperm banks accept applications from single women.
A Lan is looking for someone to have a baby with, without getting married. (Supplied)
She also posted a video online looking for a sperm donor for herself.
Protecting ‘traditional values’
In 2017, NPC deputy Hairong Dai proposed amending the family planning law.
But the National Health and Family Planning Commission says the issue requires more research. In a reply to Dai posted on its website, it said “legalising single women‘s reproductive rights does not conform to Chinese traditional values, or public order. Restricting single women‘s access to reproductive technology shows protection of children‘s rights.”
With the pressures of a low birth rate, Feng believes policymakers will loosen the restrictions in future — but will still try to maintain some control.
For Xiao Chen, the answer is simple.
Cecily Huang is a producer in ABC’s Beijing bureau.
March 16, 2019 06:00:57