China cracks down on abortions amid plunging birth rate

·3 min read
New guidelines come amid mounting concerns about an untenable ageing population - Alex Plaveski/Shutterstock
New guidelines come amid mounting concerns about an untenable ageing population - Alex Plaveski/Shutterstock

China is clamping down on abortions which are not “medically necessary” in a bid to tackle its plunging birth rate, authorities have announced.

The National Health Authority has published new guidelines to prevent unwanted pregnancies and “reduce abortions that are not medically necessary”, amid mounting concerns about an untenable ageing population.

New births in China, home to 1.4 billion, are set to fall to record lows this year, dropping below 10 million for the first time. The UN predicts that India will overtake the country as the world’s most populous in 2023.

But activists have said the move to limit access to abortions, which has been legal since 1957, will be detrimental for millions of women. It is estimated that 9.5 million abortions took place between 2015 and 2019.

Under China’s one-child policy, in place between 1980-2015, local governments forced some women to abort pregnancies deemed illegal. The government replaced the one-child policy with a two-child policy in 2016, and changed it again in 2021, allowing married couples to have up to three children.

“This is an alarming violation of women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy,” said Alkan Akad, Amnesty’s China researcher. “Forcing someone to carry out a pregnancy against their will – for whatever reason – is a violation of their human rights.”

 nurse takes care of newborn babies in a maternity hospital in Fuyang in central China's Anhui province - Future Publishing
nurse takes care of newborn babies in a maternity hospital in Fuyang in central China's Anhui province - Future Publishing

In recent decades, China’s strong economic growth has been supported by its large working-age population, but the government now fears a labour shortage. There are also concerns about a lack of workers to support the elderly and increased demand for health services.

A report published in June noted that low birth rates could also have “global significance, and may affect foreign policy influence”.

“With a reduced economic capacity, its flagship program of Belt and Road Initiative may diminish some of its influencing capacity. There may also be geopolitical implications if neighbouring India quickly surpasses China as the world’s most populous country in the future,” researchers said.

But women say that becoming mothers dampens their career prospects, while couples are increasingly hesitant to have children because of increasing education costs and spiralling property prices.

China also suffers a severe gender imbalance – last year there were 37 million more men than women.

China’s uncompromising “zero-Covid” policy of curbing outbreaks with strict controls on people’s lives may have caused profound damage on their desire to have children, demographers told Reuters.

The country’s move also means that the two biggest economies in the world – the United States and China – have rolled back abortion rights this year. In June, the United States’ Supreme Court upended Roe v Wade, allowing individual states to ban the procedure. Meanwhile, in 2021, Poland also banned access to abortions in almost all circumstances.

The Chinese National Health Authority said the measures were crucial for “promoting the long-term balanced development of the population”.

People cross a road in Beijing - MARK R CRISTINO/Shutterstock
People cross a road in Beijing - MARK R CRISTINO/Shutterstock

Under the new plans, fertility treatment will become more accessible, and local governments will be encouraged to boost infant care services and family friendly workplaces, according to guidelines published on the authority’s website.

Over the past year authorities have started to introduce measures such as tax deductions, longer maternity leave, enhanced medical insurance, housing subsidies, extra money for a third child and a crackdown on expensive private tutoring.

But Amnesty said that China is “lagging behind the rest of the world in protecting sexual and reproductive rights” amid moves to decriminalise and legalise abortion in places such as Ireland, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia.

“The Chinese authorities should respect people’s life choices and end any invasive and punitive controls over their sexual and reproductive rights,” said Mr Akad.

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security