A 50 year-old Japanese lawmaker gave birth Thursday to a baby boy conceived through in vitro fertilization, igniting a fierce debate in a country with conservative views on maternity issues.
A veteran member of parliament for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, Seiko Noda sought an American egg donor after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments and several miscarriages. In vitro fertilization is virtually banned here and it is not covered by any Japanese laws.
"I thought about adopting a child, but I hit a wall," Noda said in a recent interview with Vogue Japan. "I was told that considering the future of the child, it wasn't possible to do that for a woman who is almost 50, like me. An egg donor was the last resort."
The lawmaker once hailed as Japan's most likely first female prime minister has been very public about her struggles. In 2004, she detailed her unsuccessful treatments in a book titled "Watashi Wa Umitai" or "I Want To Give Birth."
Noda's plight has shed light on the lack of options available for Japanese women seeking egg donors and surrogate mothers.
The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology, an official doctors organization forbids the use of surrogate mothers. Japanese law requires the mother carry the baby during pregnancy.
"Couples really don't have a choice," says Yuki Sumi, head of the Information Center for Surrogate Motherhood in Tokyo. "There is no other way for them."
Sumi started the center 25 years ago and began introducing in vitro fertilization to clients nearly two decades ago. She helps couples search for egg donors and surrogate mothers in the U.S. and India.
Sumi says she was heavily criticized when she first opened the center.
"Japanese really value bloodline," she said. "They didn't understand why I was involving a third party. They said, 'why are you introducing this to the Japanese people?"
Because of the importance placed on bloodline, many Japanese prefer to keep quiet about their alternative choices. Sumi says some of her clients place a pillow under their clothes to make it appear as though they are pregnant, so friends aren't surprised when they bring the baby home.
The debate over egg donation and surrogacy are likely to grow louder, as Japan's population declines rapidly and women wait longer to have children.
The country has the second-lowest birthrate in the world after South Korea.
The Japanese government has come up with various programs to encourage marriage and child bearing with little success.
Noda has long championed greater gender equality and says, as a new mother, she plans to push for pro-family policies aimed at raising the birth rate.
"Until now, I could not push for such policies aggressively because people would criticize me for not having given birth," she told Japan's Josei Seven women's magazine. "I think I can now be considered an experienced woman who can be more persuasive."