The Japanese government signalled yesterday it may reverse policy and support surrogate births as public sympathy for infertile families rises following a series of high-profile cases.
Surrogacy is not a crime in Japan, but it is banned by the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Minister of Health Hakuo Yan-agisawa said yesterday that the government must have a second look at its previous official reports suggesting banning surrogacy.
"We are now seeing rising public opinion in support of it, compared with the time when the cautious direction had been announced," he told reporters in a press conference.
"The government must consider its future direction by carefully assessing the trend of public opinion," he said.
He spoke two days after a doctor revealed he had helped a woman in her 50s give birth to her own grandchild.
The woman was impregnated with an egg from her daughter and sperm from the daughter's husband, both of whom are in their 30s.
Yahiro Netsu, the maverick gynecologist who performed the operation, said the woman's daughter could not bear children because her uterus had been removed as part of cancer treatment.
Netsu announced the operation on Sunday after the news came out in a newspaper report amid growing public attention to the plight of infertile couples.
As recently as last week, Japan's new First Lady Akie Abe revealed she underwent fertility treatment and felt pressure to bear children because her husband, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was from a family of many politicians.
The use of surrogate mothers entered public debate after actress Aki Mukai, 41, launched a campaign to have her twin sons recognized as her and her husband's blood-related offspring.
The children were born to a surrogate mother in the US, where the practice is common.
Netsu in 2001 announced he had overseen Japan's first surrogate birth. The announcement led a council in the health ministry to propose a ban on surrogacy citing physical risks, stress to the individuals involved and possible custody battles.
Lawmakers have blocked proposals to impose the ban, but the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology meanwhile prohibited surrogate births in 2003.
Yanagisawa said Japan should now revisit the call for a ban made by the Health Ministry's council in 2001.
"Rather than locking in the council's direction as law, I think we will explore other directions," he said.
"It has to be dealt with by the government as a whole," he added.
Japan's conventional legal interpretation spells out that the woman who delivers a baby is the child's mother.
Justice Minister Jinen Nagase remained cautious on immediate changes to the law to recognize surrogate births.
"We have not decided whether we should accept this medical procedure. If we decide on it at this stage, it will only cause confusion," he said.
Sanae Takaichi, state minister in charge of population and gender equality issues, also stopped short of supporting surrogacy.