ANALYSIS | China says it restricts abortions to promote gender equality. Experts are skeptical

(CNN) – For decades, authorities in China imposed strict limits to the number of children families they could have, forcing millions of women to abort pregnancies considered illegal by the state.

That harsh practice has become less common since China relaxed its one-child policy in 2015. So when news broke this week that the government wants to cut abortions for “non-medical reasons,” the reaction was swift and furious. .

Chinese social media was inundated with comments from women fed up with what they see as the government’s efforts to control their bodies, describing the apparent U-turn on abortion as a desperate attempt to boost dwindling rates of abortion. birth rate of the country.

“The woman’s body has become a tool”, He said one of the main comments on Weibo, the Chinese platform similar to Twitter. “When (the State) wants you to have a child, you must do so at all costs. When (the State) does not want it, you are not allowed to give birth, even with the risk of death.”

Photos on social media show great blackout in China 1:47

The government’s plan for gender equality

The abortion policy was included in a broad government plan to advance the rights of women over the next decade, covering areas ranging from education to employment, and that the state media they boasted that it would improve gender equality “to a higher level in the new era.”

The abortion measure is part of a broader section on reproductive health that includes provisions such as increased health education and access to contraceptives. However, beyond that short sentence, no other details were provided, such as how the abortion restriction would be applied or the criteria that women would have to meet.

But the fact that it is mentioned in the comprehensive 10-year plan is concerning, and could be part of the government’s campaign to increase the birth rate as it faces a growing demographic crisis, said Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China”.

Abortion, in national politics

“This, of course, is not a nationwide abortion ban red alert, which would create a huge stir,” he said. “But in fact, it is more obvious than I had anticipated because it comes in the form of this document issued by the Council of State, a national policy document.”

This is the rule that authorizes up to three children in China 1:01

Despite its brevity, the line is “a statement of central government policy, and it sends a signal to all those cadres at the local level (of the Communist Party) that this is a priority of the central government,” he added.

Abortion has been widely practiced in China for decades. Under the one-child policy, introduced in 1979, millions of women a year are forced to terminate “illegal” pregnancies. The traditional preference for boys also led to an increase in sex-selective abortions, as families often chose to abort girls. This has contributed to a highly skewed gender ratio: the 2021 census revealed that there were almost 35 million more men than women in this country of 1,400 million inhabitants.

Changes in restrictions for families

However, in the last decade, China completely changed course when it began to take into account the consequences of its one-child policy: a rapidly aging population and a reduction in the workforce that threaten the country’s economic growth.

To increase the drop in the fertility rate, China enacted the two-child policy in 2016, and then the three children in August this year. The government also launched an aggressive propaganda campaign urging women to have more children, and some local authorities even offer financial incentives for families.

Why now couples in China can have 3 children? 2:31

So far, their efforts have met with a lukewarm response at best. Many women, who now enjoy greater educational and career opportunities than in the past, are reluctant to expand their families, especially with other obstacles such as the high cost of living and entrenched gender norms that relegate childcare to mothers.

Abortions have also remained high, even after the one-child policy was relaxed and the government criminalized interruptions for sex selection. Between 2014 and 2018, an average of 9.7 million interruptions were made per year, according to Reuters, citing data from the National Health Commission of China.

In response, authorities have increasingly raised concerns about abortions, with state media warning that they were “very harmful” and that they could cause “serious psychological distress” in single women. In 2018, Jiangxi province banned abortions for non-medical reasons after week 14, joining several other provinces with similar rules in place.

“The entire history of population planning in China … has been incredibly abusive and coercive,” Hong Fincher said. “So I think there are many reasons to be very concerned about this complete U-turn in emphasis coming from the central government, saying that now, China needs to reduce the number of non-medical abortions.”

Too early to measure impact

Some experts, however, caution that it is too early to say what the impact will be – especially since it is not the first time the government has signaled such intentions. The last 10-year plan for the development of women, published in 2011, also aimed to “reduce the rate of abortions” and unwanted pregnancies in general, improving sex education and access to contraception.

After decades under a one-child policy, the Chinese government now allows up to three children per family. (Credit: Getty Images)

“This is not a new policy,” said Feng Yuan, a feminist scholar and activist. “We currently see no reason for a stricter (enforcement).”

In addition, he added, several other countries also restrict terminations of pregnancies beyond 14 weeks for health and safety reasons. The reason the policy is sparking debate now is “because the focus and focus of the issue has changed, and people are concerned about the limits of their right to control their bodies,” he said.

The government will likely be very cautious on this matter as well, Hong Fincher said. The authorities are aware that this is a sensitive and controversial issue that could provoke public reactions, especially due to the growing awareness of women about their rights and their physical capacity.

But still, when viewed in the context of the government’s accelerating pressure for children – as well as its strong repression of the Chinese feminist movement in recent years – the policy unveiled on Monday does not seem to bode well for the country’s women.

“There is this rhetoric that the Communist Party was founded on the basis of gender equality … it is literally enshrined in the Constitution,” Hong Fincher noted.

“But the fact is, if you look at the evidence in recent years, the government movement has opposed the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality. I think the direction is clear now.”

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