Hutong Cat I China could tighten abortion rights to tackle population crisis
The point is abortion is common in China and private clinics even launch campaigns to attract clients. That could change
China with one of the highest rates of abortions globally could be gradually tightening its policy on it in the backdrop of low fertility rates, falling number of child births and a stagnant, ageing population.
Abortion has been legal in China since 1953 and widely available through the national health care system. It is, however, illegal to determine the sex of a foetus unless medically necessary or to perform sex-selective abortions.
Official figures put the number of abortions at 13 million in 2015 and over nine million in 2021. Actual figures could well be higher.
The point is abortion is common in China and private clinics even launch campaigns to attract clients.
“From television screens to giant outdoor billboards to roadside electricity poles, abortion advertisements are everywhere in China. Abortion is regarded as casually as dining out is, and is widely available in hospitals and clinics,” Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of “Big Country with an Empty Nest”, recently wrote for Project Syndicate.
That could change soon.
Given that the number of births in China was 10.62 million in 2021, the Chinese government has begun to look at abortion as a factor aggravating the country’s population crisis, with some researchers even estimating that its population peaked at 1.41 billion last year.
A recent set of official guidelines and announcements made by government agencies have raised questions on whether the Chinese woman’s reproductive rights are being – or will be – rolled back as the Communist Party of China (CPC) begins to intervene more decisively to increase the country’s birth rate.
China’s State Council, the country’s cabinet, issued guidelines on women’s “development”, which mentioned the need to reduce “non–medically necessary abortions,” first in 2021 and then again earlier this month.
And, in February this year, the China Family Planning Association (CFPA) said, according to several Chinese domestic media reports, it would “intervene” in abortions among unmarried women and teenagers in a bid to “improve reproductive health” starting 2022.
The right to abortion could become an issue in the coming years as China grapples with a falling population and shrinking number of consumers, which will have a cascading economic impact on the world’s second largest economy.
Tightening the right to abortion – if and when the law is changed – will be another example of what the Chinese government is known to do : interfere with an individual’s reproductive and family planning rights: Forced abortions in the name of population control from the late 1970s could morph into unwanted or accidental pregnancies to increase population.
In June, millions of Chinese closely tracked and commented on the Roe vs Wade abortion judgement in the US on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media platform.
The overturning of abortion rights in the US was strongly criticised by many among Chinese Weibo users with many commenting that it was a regressive decision.
Perhaps, behind the criticism was a seed of worry for the state of abortion rights for women in China.
“China liberalised its abortion law in the 1950s and promoted the practice under its one-child policy, which was enacted in 1979 in an effort to curb population growth by restricting families to one child. The policy, under which abortion services were made widely available, came with severe coercive measures —including fines, compulsory sterilization, and abortion—to deter unauthorised births,” the New York-based Council for Foreign Relations said in a report comparing the US and China on abortion rights following the June judgement.
The subtle change – in principle -- in abortion rights is clearly related to the fact that a change in population policy -- to a two-child policy in 2016 and later to a three child policy last year – did not have the expected results.
“In 2021, it increased the limit to three children, and China’s State Council (or the Cabinet) issued guidelines on women’s development that called to reduce “non–medically necessary abortions,” the CFR report said.
On August 19, the State Council gave the green signal to establish a joint meeting mechanism involving 26 government ministries and departments, aiming to further strengthen coordination to optimise birth policy in the backdrop of a rapidly declining birth rate.
The new mechanism will involve 26 departments including the national health commission (NHC), the foreign ministry, the national development and reform commission, China’s top planning body and education ministry with the NHC as the leading unit.
A detailed guideline issued as a precursor to the mechanism the same week also mentioned the need to decrease “non-medical abortions”.
The guidelines urged local governments to improve and implement support measures from taxation and insurance to education and housing and also to boost infant care services and create family friendly workplaces.
According to the last census in 2021, China’s total fertility rate -- the number of children, on average, a woman is expected to have -- fell to 1.3 births per woman in 2020, below the population replacement level.
Until now, the relaxation of the one-child policy hasn’t really worked for China.
The country’s population increased by less than half a million in 2021, recording a drop in births for the fifth consecutive year, official data showed in January. The UN estimates that by 2050, China’s population will shrink to around 1.31 billion. By then, India’s population is expected to be 1.68 billion. And researchers put the share of China’s population over the age of 60 years at anything between 25% and 30% by then.
China recorded 10.62 million births in 2021, or only 7.5 births per 1,000 people, the national bureau of statistics (NBS) said in January, marking the lowest growth rate since the founding of new China under the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949.
So, the focus on abortion.
Abortion numbers had an upward trajectory in the 1980s and then began trending downward in the 1990s, Mengjun Tang, China Population and Development Research Centre in Beijing, wrote in a research paper in April.
“The number of abortions rose again after 2013, maintaining a level of roughly 9 million per year. The number of induced abortions was 8.96 million in 2020, a number equal to 74.7% of the number of births in that year. However, it is important to note that China does not disaggregate the number of induced abortions by marital status and province,” Meng wrote.
Reducing the incidence of abortion in China will be easier said than done. “In the past, the authorities regarded the country’s large population as a burden, and the one-child policy not only encouraged women to have abortions but also involved the government forcing them to do so,” Yi, the senior scientist referred to earlier wrote.
Yi indicated that tightening abortion laws will not be effective without a wider and coordinated plan.
“It could even trigger other social crises, such as an increase in the number of abandoned children and a spike in illegal abortions, which would threaten the health and lives of many women,” Yi wrote.