Thursday, October 28, 2010

Motherhood Is A Choice, Say Activists

For years, Kanako Nashimura longed to have a child, but was diagnosed as having a blocked fallopian tube. Encouraged by her husband and in-laws, she tried various fertility treatments, but not one of them worked.

Now 55, Nashimura has since divorced her husband and is living alone. She recounts, "The treatment was hard on me physically, but the mental agony of facing disappointment after disappointment as I was told by doctors over the years that I was not pregnant was far worse." 

But she adds, "My sadness has eased somewhat now as a realise today that Japanese women are under huge pressure socially to become mothers. That is not the way it should be." 

It’s a view shared by activists at Friends of Finrrage, a network of women that was first in Japan to put forward the notion that infertility is part and parcel of discussions on women’s reproductive rights. 

But as Japan’s ageing population continues to worry policymakers, the discussion regarding infertility in this country is getting more and more narrowed down to being about all about treatments to help women who are unable to bear children. 

Left out in such discussions are questions such as the willingness of a woman to have a child in the first place, and her readiness to take such a responsibility. 

Says Keio University professor and Finrrage member Satoko Nagaoki: "In reality our movement, which focused on infertility not only as needing treatment but also as a right of choice for women, has grown weaker these past few years. We are up against a growing campaign to increase birth rates from a national and medical standpoint." 

As it is, she says, Finrrage’s membership has dwindled from its original 1,000 when the network was launched in 1991 to the current 200. 

With a birth rate of 1.2 children per woman, Japan in 2009 had a mere 13 percent of its 127 million people aged 14 years and below. By contrast, those 65 years old and above made up about 22.7 percent of the population. This has put more pressure on Japanese women to have children – and for those who are infertile to seek treatment. 

In 2005, the Ministry of Health and Welfare even began extending subsidies to support fertility treatment that covers in-vitro fertilisation. The programme attracted 17,000 women during its first year. By 2009, that figure had shot up to almost 90,000 women. 

Indeed, reproductive rights activists also link the weak support for the use of the contraceptive pill in Japan to government policies that they say view women as "baby machines" rather than individuals who may have dreams other than being mothers -- and who should be allowed to make informed decisions about whether or not they want to have children. 

The pill, which is often seen as a symbol of "feminist progress", was introduced in Japan only in 1999, or decades later than other countries. 

To this day, it is available here in gynaecology clinics, and at steep prices at that. Its use is not covered by health insurance, and pills can cost women as much 1,000 dollars a year, excluding fees for tests women need to undergo before they can get a prescription. 

Only three percent of women between the ages of 16 and 49 use the pill in Japan, compared to 43 percent among women in the same age range in France. 

Not surprisingly, the condom has become the most popular contraceptive in this country, a development that reproductive rights activists say only reinforce old-fashioned gender roles where women have to depend on men for family planning. 

Recently, though, the notion that women are happiest when they have children has been reinforced by the high-profile media coverage of one of Japan’s most prominent female legislators. 

Seiko Noda, who has been active in Japanese politics since she was 26, has announced that she has finally conceived at age 49, through reproductive technology, using the donated eggs of a 20-something woman from the United States. 

Years before, she had written a book about her failed attempts to have a child with her then partner by undergoing numerous fertility treatments. Now with a new partner, Noda told the Japanese media this month, "It’s a mystery (to carry a child). The universe is here (in my belly)."

Interestingly, Noda has never been formally married, in protest of Japanese laws that stipulate that husband and wife choose one surname – either his or hers – not but do not allow each to keep his or her own after marriage. That had partly sealed her public image as a woman who is able to defy norms in a macho society. 

The fact that Noda began to try having a child only at age 40 also struck a chord among Japanese career women who are marrying later and planning pregnancies when they are in their 30s or 40s. 

But Finrrage’s Nagaoki laments that Noda’s story has contributed to the concept of infertility as a treatment issue, eclipsing the more important aspect of women’s reproductive rights. 

Kunio Kitamura, director at the Japan Family Planning Clinic, himself predicts that the "need" for infertility treatment would only grow in this country. Like Finrrage’s members, though, he stresses the importance of having better reproductive education that incorporates the rights aspect for women.

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.