China tightens abortion controls as population crisis looms

Government to allow couples have three children while authorities experiment with additional incentives for women to have children

China is tightening controls over abortions for "non-medical purposes" as policymakers battle to counter a demographic crisis.

New guidelines aimed at improving fertility and reproductive health were released this week by the State Council, China's cabinet, as part of an updated "Outline for Women's Development".

The guidelines were announced as policymakers tackle the myriad problems posed by a rapidly ageing population.

Over recent months Beijing has said it would allow couples to have three children while local governments have experimented with new incentives for women, such as longer maternity leave, better childcare and subsidies for women who have two children.


The moves come against a backdrop of deep societal scars caused by decades of enforcement of the one-child policy, including forced sterilisation, contraception and abortions, as well as a centuries-old traditional preference for boys.

Ye Liu, a lecturer at King's College London, said the wording in the policy document "might be significant" because it could mean that women seeking abortions might be asked to provide a medical reason.

“However, it is still too early to assess how this proposed measure will be implemented across the public healthcare providers and private clinics,” Liu said.

She added that when compared with an earlier women’s development policy, from 10 years ago, there was a striking change of tone from “prevention of births” to “pro-natal” policies, including maternal health and regulation of fertility service providers.

However, Ms Liu noted, the new guidelines also suggested a shift in responsibilities for fertility planning, “from men and women, to women”.

Jane Golley, an expert in Chinese demographics at the Australian National University, said that China's history of "vile" population control practices made it "hard to have good faith" that the policy was genuinely focused on protecting the reproductive health of women.

Slowest rate

“It might be a good move if it prevents sex-selective abortion. But if it forces couples to proceed with unwanted births, that’s just restricting freedom of choice,” she said.

Beijing’s latest measures to boost fertility rates coincides with a torrent of policy changes, which have spread rapidly from business and technology to culture and society.

China’s population grew at its slowest rate in decades in the 10 years to 2020. That put the spotlight on the failures of less prohibitive birth restrictions to combat population declines – including the 2015 changes that officially allowed all couples to have two children.

Ms Golley added that China needed to appreciate the lessons from the many other countries that have already fallen into “low fertility traps”.

“If you really want to promote a prosperous and productive workforce, you’d be far better off to tackle the gender inequality and the discrimination that women still face,” she said.

“That would make people more likely to reduce their preference for sons if they know their future daughters can also have successful careers. It would also free up and enable close to half the workforce to work at their productive capacity.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021