Seiko Noda, a 51-year-old Lower House lawmaker, drew wide public attention and controversy by bearing a child at age 50 through artificial insemination.
During an interview in February, about a year after giving birth to a boy using ova from a third party in the United States, Noda said she has no regrets. She says her son, Masaki, who has never left the hospital since birth due to serious medical problems, is her “mentor” who trains her as a politician.
Noda, a six-term lawmaker and a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, has had a stellar career as a politician. She served as posts and telecommunications minister as well as consumer affairs minister and was once widely expected to become the first female prime minister.
Her private life has been filled with constant travails, however, because she had enormous difficulty having a child. At age 44 she published a book titled “Watashi wa Umitai” (“I Want to Give Birth”), in which she poured her heart out about her burning desire to somehow produce offspring and discussed her experience with fertility techniques.
Her first partner, Upper House member Yosuke Tsuruho, was against her having fertility treatment. Their five-year de facto marital relationship ended in 2006. She then became pregnant via in vitro fertilization using donor eggs from the United States and sperm from her current partner.
She gave birth to Masaki in January 2011, but he was seriously ill.
Asked whether she was determined to have her own child, Noda said, “I just wanted to raise a child” and added she tried several times to adopt. She was always turned down either because she was too old or was not legally married to her partner. The only way left for her was to have a baby with eggs donated by another woman. This procedure is not authorized in Japan, so she got the eggs in the United States.
Noda advises other women not to take the course she has chosen.
“I want people who wish to start a family to have children when they are young. Society should offer support so that they can do so,” she said.
Being a sitting lawmaker also added to her troubles amidst the general attitude of the public, which tends to denigrate women without children as being immature.
“Critics have always said that a childless woman has no right to discuss politics,” Noda said. “But now they say I’m not working hard enough as a politician because I have a child.”
She also lamented the injustice of people reproaching childless women for being selfish, who focus on work or whatever else they want to do. Often, these women can’t conceive or marry even if they want to have children, she said.
Compounding her problem was her inability to take maternal leave.
“People threatened that I would lose an election if I took too much time off so, I went back to work in less than two months after giving birth. My problem is the same as that of any other working women who could lose their jobs, could not climb the corporate ladder or could be forced to take pay cuts” if they spend extra time to look after their children.
Noda noted that the lack of support makes it as difficult as ever for working women to have children, even though the declining birthrate is one of the most serious challenges menacing Japan’s future.
Masaki turned 1 in January. He has never left the hospital because he had to undergo a series of operations due to heart and other serious health problems. In October, he temporarily stopped breathing and had a stroke as a result. His life continues to hang in the balance.
Noda said she never regrets her decision to have him.
“I often think this is not what I expected because there are so many times I feel I want to suffer my child’s pain myself rather than see him suffer. I love my child regardless of whether he is disabled or not.
“My son is my mentor. Medical matters never were my strong suit. Now I’m learning about them harder than anybody else. He is testing my mettle as a politician.”
She also said Masaki is a beneficiary of advances in medical research achieved after children suffered similar conditions about 10 years ago.
“The treatment my son is now getting will yield useful results for children who will be born in the future,” she said.
He is a great kid who is playing a crucial role, according to his mother.
Asked if it is possible to be a politician and a mother at the same time, she said it is best for a mother to look after her ailing child round the clock while it is best for a lawmaker to give her undivided attention to her work. But neither option is possible for her.
“There is no choice but to believe that I’m doing everything I can do and consider that to be the best. I’m embodying the problem of the country, whose youth population is shrinking,” she said.
“Men in their 70s or 80s” who criticize her understand nothing about such problems, said Noda, adding that what matters is the “quality” of time you spend with your child, not the amount.