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China set to discourage abortion amid concern over birthrates

A man pushes his grandchildren in Beijing in July. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

China’s National Health Commission announced this week that it would take steps to reduce the number of abortions in the country — Beijing’s latest attempt to tackle low birthrates and stagnant population growth.

According to new guidelines published on the state-run commission’s website, officials plan to offer incentives to encourage family growth, including expanding access to child-care services, reducing the cost of attending nursery school and working with employers to make offices more “family friendly.”

The government has also vowed to make infertility treatment more widely available to married women, by including reproductive technology in the country’s national medical system. In China, single women are not allowed to freeze their eggs and undergo in vitro fertilization, and are routinely denied care and services available to married women.

The Tuesday notice comes as China continues to grapple with a demographic downturn — a hangover, in part, from the country’s “one-child policy,” which from 1979 to 2015 was used to slash birthrates while the country was experiencing a population boom. Abortion, which is legal in China, played a role in adherence to the policy.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, China has among the highest rates of abortion globally. From 2015 to 2019, the country recorded 40,200,000 pregnancies annually — 23.2 million of which were unintended and 17.7 million that ended in abortion. The data shows that about 78 percent of unintended pregnancies in China end in abortion. The global average of unintended pregnancies that end in abortion is 61 percent.

The importance of passing down the family name and preference for sons has also contributed to the rate of abortions in China, skewing the country’s population by sex. A 2021 population census showed that the country has 35 million more men than women.

In 2016, the Chinese government altered its policy to allow married couples to have two children. In 2021, the number increased to three. But despite those changes, recent birth data published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics show a “swan dive” in births since 2016 — indicating a paradox in the country at a time when the government was giving families more flexibility.

Recent studies have shown Chinese women are increasingly choosing not to have children — a decision informed by the pandemic and how China’s isolation from the rest of the world has brought about economic uncertainty in the country.

According to a February study conducted by Beijing-based think tank YuWa Population Research Institute, China was behind South Korea in having the lowest birthrates in the world. Researchers at YuWa say that women are concerned about the mounting costs of education, long working hours and low wages.

Low birthrates in China have led to the inevitable: a growing elderly portion of the population. Demographic data collected by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs show that the country is expected to shrink in 2025.

The Tuesday proposal would enhance and provide women with a “positive childbearing support system” and improve services to promote a “long-term” and “balanced” growth in the country’s population.

This is not the first time China has introduced incentives for couples to have children. Authorities have proposed tax reductions, longer maternity leave, better medical insurance and financial support for families with three kids, Reuters reported. Tuesday’s announcement echoes a 2021 proposal to restrict abortions under the guise of promoting gender equality.

According to Margaret Harpin and Katy Mayall of the Center for Reproductive Rights, only China and Iran have adopted policies to further restrict abortion access. They say that recent global trends in abortion access indicate a general move to remove barriers, rather than add them.

“Countries are shifting to a utilitarian approach,” Mayall said, citing 60 countries that have liberalized abortion laws in recent years.

Last year, the Chinese government issued a policy memo to improve women’s rights over the next decade, which included provisions to grant women more access to education and employment. Under a section on reproductive health, officials wrote that women will receive guidance on navigating the health-care system, including accessing contraception. Although abortion wasn’t explicitly outlined in the briefing, the memo highlighted the need to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.