BEIJING, DEC. 29 -- Stung by foreign criticism last week of a proposed "eugenics" law to prevent births of children with defects, China said today that it will not coerce mothers into having abortions.

"The essence of China's better-births policy is totally different from the racist 'eugenics' policy pursued by Adolf Hitler during his Third Reich," said a Public Health Ministry statement carried by the official New China News Agency.

The statement also gave the proposed legislation a new name: "Draft Natal and Health Care Law." Last week it had been titled: "On Eugenics and Health Protection."

But the new version of the law would still make demands on some couples, a Public Health Ministry spokesman said. It would require certain couples to postpone marriage or take long-term contraceptive measures after marriage. These include couples diagnosed as having reproductive diseases, hereditary diseases that lead to seriously sick or disabled children, schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychoses and other severe psychoses, or acute infectious diseases, including venereal diseases.

As described last week, the law would use sterilization, abortion and bans on marriage to prevent affected people from passing on hereditary mental disabilities and certain diseases, including hepatitis, to their children. It was designed to "to avoid new births of inferior quality and heighten the standards of the whole population," the news agency had said.

Today, a government spokesman disavowed that language, saying: "The official English translation of the new Natal and Health Care Law will not be finalized until the law is promulgated." Ordinarily, draft laws are adopted by the National People's Congress without any significant change.

The spokesman stressed that the aim of the law is to prevent the birth of people with serious hereditary diseases or mental disabilities. As a relatively poor, developing country, China is a place where such people face considerable difficulties.

The government said as many as 460,000 children a year are born in China with birth defects and disabilities that could have been foreseen with testing. It said there are about 10 million people with similar congenital problems living here whose births could have been prevented.

While parents in the United States routinely undergo genetic testing to detect potential birth defects, that testing is a matter of personal choice and conscience. The drafting of a government policy in China raised concerns about the degree of coercion involved, a concern exacerbated by controversy over the degree to which coercion has been used in China's policy of one child per family.

Last week, the Public Health Ministry would not answer questions about how the new proposed law would be implemented. But a ministry spokesman said today that even if a doctor advises a woman to have an abortion because she is likely to give birth to a disabled or sick baby, the draft law stipulates that termination of pregnancy must be with the agreement of the woman or her guardian.

"This provision indicates that the law respects the right of individuals to make their own judgments and reflects the principle of combining government guidance with individual choice," the spokesman said. "The law will serve to prevent or reduce the number of births of seriously sick and disabled children {and} improve the quality of the Chinese population."

The purpose of China's new law is "to give birth to healthy future generations; the essential content is health care for mother and child," he added.

The earlier description of the law also mentioned hepatitis, a liver disease common among Chinese people. Hepatitis A can be cured, but hepatitis B is more serious and can be passed on to children by their mothers and can lead to chronic liver problems.