Last year, Feng Jianmei was forced into a van by Chinese Family Planning Officials with a pillowcase on her head. She was driven to a hospital where her 7-month old fetus was forcibly aborted, simply because she could not pay the fine for contravening China’s one-child policy. While this particularly disturbing case that occurred in June 2012 is the exception and not the norm, these abusive accounts often go hand-in-hand with accounts of gender-specific feticide in search of a boy, due to the one-child policy. Ancient Chinese traditions have heavily favoured a male child, and especially in rural areas, it’s a difficult concept to let go. These alarming stories frequently incite outrage in the general Chinese public, who are becoming increasingly critical of government corruption and unsavory societal trends.
An important consideration in discussions about abortion within the Western world has always been autonomy: allowing a woman to have control of her own womb. In developing countries like China, where reproductive rights are examined as a societal concern, individual choices are put on hold in favour of policies that serve the interests of the entire country. China’s one-child policy has been controversial, without a clear answer of whether the ends justify the means in this particular scenario. It’s well known that for a country, as living standards increase, the birth rate will naturally fall due to a number of factors including better health care and accessible education. In 1979, China aimed to control its ballooning population and facilitate the growth of its quality of life, and introduced the policy that limits the number of children for most families to one.
Realizing that the one-child policy facilitates the possibility of increased forced abortions and gendercide, the Chinese government planned rules and regulations to outlaw these exact scenarios from happening. A 2002 Family Planning law explicitly bans the use of ultrasound and other technologies to determine the gender of a fetus. Abortions based on a child’s sex are also illegal, which is a sign that the Chinese government is trying to restore balance to an unnatural sex ratio at birth that is heavily skewed towards males. The forced late-term abortion Feng suffered is also not permitted according to national Chinese law, and she has been promised repayment, although it’s doubtful any amount of money would be able to repay Feng for her lost child.
The heavy mismatch between expectation and reality represents the catch-up that developing countries often face when confronted with growth and change. Policymakers can set guidelines and rules, but time for adjustment is required for general citizens to comply. Passing a law is one matter, but regulating and enforcing it is a completely different beast. Education is also a critical component, and a recent report on China’s higher-than-average abortion rate speaks to that. Abortions in China occur at about 1 in 100 people, compared to the U.S. where 1 in 500 abortions were reported. Many of those patients in China are university students, and surveys have indicated a lack of basic sexual education among Chinese youth. Perhaps due to a lack of accessibility and information, only 1.2% of Chinese women take oral contraceptives, compared to 30-50% of women in developed countries. Policies are also not set in stone, and the 40+ year-old one-child policy has slowly been changing. Although the rules vary depending on the area, allowances such as “two children if first is a girl” or the more gender-equal “two children within a four-year interval” are slowly becoming more prevalent. Exceptions also exist for minority groups, and even families living in big-cities such as Beijing are encouraged to have more children, as officials have expressed concern for a child-deficiency in urban areas.
The intent of the one-child policy was to curb unchecked population growth, a resource that the populous China does not lack. Over the last fifty years, China has significantly improved its citizen’s access to resources such as tap water, which had coverage increase from 84% to 94% in the past fifteen years. While it’s unlikely that all the gains in living standards can be attributed to the one-child policy, it’s difficult to argue that the policy had no effect at all. The growth of China’s population has slowed since 1987, and in an economical lens, fewer children can result in a more sustainable rate of resource consumption. Whether the gains of this policy can offset the suffering of those parents who fall through the cracks of the system is less clear. Ultimately, this issue represents a clash between the individual right to autonomous health care and broad-sweeping legislation that aim to benefit the country as a whole.
By Ronald Leung
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