As its birth rate falls below the replacement rate, Japan is searching for ways to encourage its residents to make more babies. Urayasu, a suburb of Tokyo that’s home to about 160,000 people, is trying out a pilot program that will pay 80 percent of the cost of egg-freezing for any woman who wants to give it a go.
The city will spend 90 million yen, or about $864,000, over three years as part of a research project headed by a local hospital. Most women would spend between 500,000 and 600,000 yen (between $4,800 and $5,760) to freeze their eggs; now, any woman in Urayasu aged 25 to 34 can do it for one-fifth that cost.
Urayasu’s government hopes that the public funding will make it easier for women to keep the option of parenthood alive without worrying about finding the right time, ending up in the right relationship, or the potential cost to their careers. At a time when some Japanese people worry about the country’s young people eschewing sex and romantic relationships in part because intimacy is “too hard,” political leaders are ready to try just about anything.
“In general, pregnancy and childbirth is an individual issue, but when the situation has gone this far I consider it a social problem. I view using public expenditure as the right thing to do,” said Urayasu Mayor Hideaki Matsuzaki. So far, 12 women have signed up for the program; two-thirds of them chose to freeze their eggs because they or their husbands have a health problem.
The Urayasu program is a study to see how this might affect birth rates, but there is reason to believe its effects will be limited. First of all, defrosted eggs are less likely to result in a pregnancy than, uh, fresh ones. This is a bigger problem for older eggs—the average U.S. woman who freezes her eggs is 37.4—which explains why Urayasu is limiting the study to younger women.
But also, in the U.S. at least, more women freeze their eggs because they don’t have partners than do so because of their careers. It looks like the same might be true in Japan: There, the birth rate is higher in the countryside, where women join the workforce at higher rates, than in the city, where they more often stay home. Japan previously tried to boost its birth rate by encouraging women to stay home, thinking they’d have more babies, but the fertility rate plummeted. Turns out, Japanese women have more babies when they have the money to do so.
Supporting women workers by raising their wages (they make just 60 percent of what men do) and ending the widespread problem of pregnancy discrimination might do more to encourage parenthood than giving women more time to wait. Then again, if the problem is a culture of young people who avoid sex and relationships, maybe more time to discover the miracles of love and babymaking is exactly what they need.