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Fertility issue pregnant with discord

by Philip Brasor

In 2004, Diet lawmaker Seiko Noda wrote a book titled “Watashi wa Umitai” (“I Want to Give Birth”), which chronicled her years of infertility treatments and the subsequent pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. Two years later she ended her six-year relationship with fellow politician Yosuke Tsuruho, who in the book was portrayed as being against the treatments.

Though Noda always referred to Tsuruho as her “husband,” they were never technically married as they did not share a koseki (family register). Noda belongs to the Liberal Democratic Party and calls herself a conservative, but she is also in favor of bessei (allowing separate names for married couples), which most conservatives strongly oppose because they believe it undermines family unity.

Noda retains a certain maverick reputation in Japanese politics. Last month she fortified her notoriety when she announced that, at the age of 49, she was pregnant. Having a baby at her age is eyebrow-raising enough, but Noda revealed that the pregnancy was the result of expensive treatment she underwent in the United States involving the donation of a third-party egg. After having passed the 15th week without any problems, she decided to make the news public in the magazine Shukan Shincho.

In a different weekly magazine, Aera, Noda explained that after her “divorce” from Tsuruho, she immersed herself in her work, including a stint as Minister of Consumer Affairs. However, she never lost her desire to have a baby, and eventually met another man, a restaurant owner who, like Tsuruho, is seven years younger than she is. They started living together and, again, Noda refers to him as her husband even though they aren’t married. “I wanted to have a child with him,” she says.

They thought about adopting, but she says they didn’t qualify. Adopting parents must be married and at least one parent needs to stay at home to raise the child. Both Noda and her partner work full time.

Noda’s inability to conceive is due to blocked fallopian tubes, and any eggs she could harvest for in vitro fertilization were becoming less viable the older she got, so she considered having a donated egg fertilized by her partner and implanted in her uterus. Some clinics in Japan offer this treatment, but the medical community has never reached a consensus on the ethical ramifications.

Moreover, there are no laws governing donated eggs. Women who undergo such treatment in Japan receive eggs from relatives or close friends. Being a politician, Noda decided that this “legal gray zone” would make it problematic for her to receive the treatment here, so she went to the U.S., where it’s more accepted.

Due to an agreement she made with the fertility clinic, Noda can’t reveal the “race or nationality” of the woman who provided the egg, but she can say she is “in her 20s, a Christian, with O-type blood.”

If she seems peculiarly forthcoming about a matter that’s nobody else’s business, she has her reasons, which are to provoke a discussion about the availability of such treatments in Japan. She mentions in Aera that she is working with others to “study a law regarding infertility treatments.” The health ministry has been “uncooperative” because it doesn’t see any public interest in the matter.

But while Noda believes that such treatments should be made available in Japan, she says they shouldn’t be available to just anyone. They should only be used as last resorts by “married couples,” she says, and not by “women who just want to satisfy their egos.”

Noda obviously views her own unmmarried status as a technicality, but it bears scrutiny. The reason she didn’t marry Tsuruho and hasn’t married the restaurant owner is because she wants to keep her name. Under the current Civil Code, a married couple must have the same name, and for whatever reasons neither of her “husbands” has given up his.

As a committed conservative, Noda would be expected to be against bessei, but her situation is exceptional. In Japan anyone can adopt another person as long as the adopter is at least one day older than the adoptee. (This is easier to do than adopting a child from an orphanage, a process called “special adoption.”) Noda was born Seiko Shima, and before entering politics she was adopted by her paternal grandfather, Uichi Noda, a powerful politician in his own day.

Uichi and his wife, Mitsu, had had only one child, a son named Minoru, who was then adopted by Mitsu’s parents because they didn’t have a male heir. Mitsu’s parents’ name was Shima, and when Minoru married he named his daughter Seiko. After Mitsu died, Uichi adopted Seiko in order to carry on the Noda name.

Noda admits at the end of the Aera article that she intends to “pass the baton” given to her by her grandfather; that’s why she wants to keep her name. Though this desire doesn’t diminish the credibility of her “wanting to give birth,” her situation calls into question her reasons for making it a matter of public discussion. Who, exactly, is satisfying her ego here?

Noda plays fast and loose with semantics in order to convince people that she is in a traditional marriage and insists she wants “her husband’s child” because she thinks that’s the only way her actions can be justified. Again, it’s nobody else’s business what she does with her own body, but her pronouncements as a public figure implicitly marginalize the growing cross section of Japanese women who, for whatever reasons, are in nonconventional relationships and/or raising children on their own.

Regardless of what Noda professes, her situation will be nonconventional in more ways than one. An aspect of this story that neither Noda nor the mainstream media has mentioned so far is that unless she officially marries the restaurant guy, her child will be designated as illegitimate in her koseki, a legal distinction that still carries social and administrative stigmas. If she wants to provoke a discussion that helps women and children alike, that’s a good place to start.