The Legacy of China’s One Child Policy on Reproductive Rights

China’s controversial one-child policy was born of Thomas Malthus’ apocalyptic population projections and the predictions of Chinese rocket scientists. Thirty-five years after its conception, China recently announced a comprehensive policy shift from one child to two children per family. While this change is far from groundbreaking, it amalgamates years of piecemeal relaxations and concessions on Chinese authorities’ restrictions on childbearing.

What, then, is the legacy of the one-child policy and the impact of loosening, but not abandoning, birthing restrictions? Some try to answer this question by debating the effectiveness of the one-child policy and of China’s irreversible aging population. However, this focus overlooks the complex consequences of the birthing restrictions on women – the primary targets of China’s family planning policy.

The scars are still present for most families subjected to family planning policies, not in the least women who were subjected to forced abortions, sterilizations, and IUD insertions. Child abandonment, sex selective abortions, and China’s skewed gender ratio can also be partly attributed to the one child policy.

While impossible to know how many forced abortions took place in China as a result of the one child policy, reports suggest that approximately 13 million abortions occur every year. These figures also allege that 62 percent of abortions are performed on women aged between 20 and 29, most of whom are single. Although these abortions were not all forced, the social stigmas and legal barriers to registering a child to a single mother possibly coerced many into having the procedure. If a single mother must pay a significant fine to register her child, is this truly free choice?

The available abortion statistics are not completely accurate and are likely under-reported; however, it is useful to compare abortion statistics across countries for additional context. Data released by the United Nations in 2013 shows that for every 1,000 women age 15-44, 19.2 women in China, 19.6 women in the United States, and 37.4 women in Russia had abortions. The data suggests that while Chinese women face immense legal pressure to have abortions in order to comply with birthing policies, the country’s reported abortion rates are not significantly different as compared to other countries.

China’s skewed gender ratio is also not entirely abnormal as compared to other Asian countries. Without state intervention, there are about 106 boys for every 100 girls in the country. In 2004, China’s sex ratio reached 121.2 boys born for every 100 girls. By 2013, the ratio decreased to 117.6 boys for every 100 girls. Gender imbalances in other Asian countries are comparable, with South Korea’s sex imbalance in the early 1990s being as high as 116.5 boys for every 100 girls; Vietnam’s hovering around 111 males born for every 100 females born; and India’s approximating 112 males for every 100 females.

Of course, while this data contextualizes China’s demographic issues within broader Asian trends, it does not challenge the effect that China’s one-child policy had on exacerbating abortion rates, sex selective abortions, or the skewed gender ratio.

Despite China’s shift to a two-child policy, the birth rate is unlikely to start increasing significantly. Not only did the vast shift in birth rates precede the one-child policy, but China’s population would also most likely have fallen independently due to increased economic development. Furthermore, loopholes in the one-child policy already enabled many to have additional children. People in rural areas, for example, were permitted to have a second child if their first was a boy. Couples wherein one partner was an only child could also have more than one child. The remainder of the population that fell outside these exceptions paid a fine for acting against China’s family planning policy.

Ultimately, the end of the one-child policy may not greatly affect the country because the impact of the one-child policy itself – at an aggregate statistical level – is still in question. Although the one-child policy was both coercive and invasive, the trends in China are certainly not unique. Birthing restrictions certainly exacerbated, but did not solely cause, Chinese demographic tendencies.

Nonetheless, given the plethora of human rights abuses surrounding family planning in China over the past 35 years, the two-child policy is a welcome change for many. There are currently an estimated 13 million unregistered children in China who lack legal identity documentation and are therefore excluded from state-sponsored programs, including education. The change in the one-child policy means parents will not have to pay steep fines to legally register additional children – which may effectively reduce the number of unregistered children. And while forced sterilization may not disappear entirely, there may be an easing in the rigorous enforcement of contraception and a transition to more flexible choices for mothers.

The two-child policy cannot, however, be seen as a withdrawal of the Chinese state from women’s reproductive rights. A two-child policy and on-going restrictions over single mothers are both still elements of invasive regulations that threaten the reproductive rights of China’s women. The pressure over contraception and abortions, as well as the punishments imposed on those who breach birthing policies, will not disappear. Unfortunately, despite the policy changes, it is likely that the pressure will simply be refocused to target a smaller population of women. Mothers who still want more than two children will continue to face birthing restrictions as the Chinese state maintains its right to restrict family size.