The U.S. Agency for International Development has again decided not to support the population programs of 130 countries through the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. The reason given is that the UNFPA provides funds for China and that "significant changes" in China's controversial population program ''have not occurred."
In fact, the U.S. decision appears to be a gesture to American anti-abortion activists, for Chinese officials have essentially eliminated earlier problems with their program. Current realities in China are being ignored.
Public opinion in the United States was greatly influenced by highly dramatic reports from 1981 to 1983 of widespread female infanticide and coercive abortions. But since that time, intensive search by foreign journalists and scholars has failed to find evidence of coercive practices. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that last year it found no evidence of human rights violations.
A major Chinese policy change in 1984 strengthened voluntary family planning and the use of educational approaches and decentralized decision making. From the beginning, no effort had been made to apply the official policy of favoring one-child families to minorities, people in remote areas or in hazardous occupations or when the first child was handicapped. After 1984, the number of groups excluded from the policy was increased to 14, including cases in which both parents were single children or, in several provinces, in which the first child was a girl.
The one-child policy was always considered a temporary response to the surge of births from the baby-boom generation born in the 1950s and 1960s. At present there are about three children for every two families. Officials in Beijing are concerned because birth rates increased in 1986, but they have not reverted to coercive practices and instead are increasing the attention to accessibility and quality of family planning services.
When the one-child policy started in 1979, China was still recovering from the severe social trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Reports in Chinese newspapers of fathers being punished for the ancient practice of female infanticide resulted from successful government efforts to prevent discrimination against females. Based on my field work in all parts of China, I believe that more unwanted babies are now being killed or abandoned in the United States than die from infanticide in China.
Four years ago reports of coercive late-stage abortions were widespread as a result of the periodic "high tides" of family planning. The one-child policy greatly strengthened routine family planning services, so that in most of the country about 90 percent of the eligible couples now use modern contraceptive methods. Although national statistics are incomplete, I estimate that this improved coverage has reduced the number of abortions by 50 percent.
When I first started intensive visits to both urban and remote rural health facilities in 1979, abortion rooms were busy. Now, anyone with clinical training can see that they are used much less. Many abortions still are the result of spontaneous expulsion of steel rings which had been used as intrauterine devices. The number of abortions would be reduced even more under a new UNFPA program that introduces modern devices. The government also encourages a shift from sterilizations to temporary methods of family planning so that parents could have another child if one were to die.
The educational approach has been especially effective because Chinese traditionally follow government instructions. For survival under crowded conditions, individualism must often be sacrificed to group decisions. An old Chinese proverb says that people should fit together in their social relationships like the smooth round stones in a river bed.
Single children receive many benefits that have nothing to do with government incentives. In the 50 countries in which I have worked, I have never seen as great a focus on child welfare as in China. The reason seems to be family concerns about the one child. Parents say that if they can have only one child, they want to make it perfect.
The administration in Washington should base its decisions affecting family planning services in China on what is happening there now, rather than on stereotypes lingering from the past.
The writer, professor emeritus of international health at Johns Hopkins University, was UNICEF representative in China from 1984 to 1987.