China’s family-planning policy is more than a one-child policy. It’s a one-child-per-couple policy. Though the problem of skyrocketing abortion rates among single Chinese women has been highlighted by the media and attributed to a lack of sex education, no one has connected the problem to this tragic equation: no marriage certificate, no birth permit. No birth permit, no baby.
Millions of unmarried women in China get pregnant, but none is allowed to give birth to her baby. Why has no one on either side of the abortion debate shouted this from the rooftops?
Before the policy began, there were fewer than 5 million abortions a year in China. Today, there are an estimated 13 million to 23 million abortions annually. The New York Times wrote in July 2009 that most are performed on single women. This is more than a lack of sex education.
One reason for the lack of awareness about this issue could be the ambiguity of the one-child policy. The documentation on the policy, which varies by province, never clearly instructs officials to abort babies of unmarried women but certainly allows for such violence through its key message of “one-child per couple.” Our staff at All Girls Allowed, an organization devoted to helping mothers in China, regularly receives reports of single mothers who were forced by officials to abort.
Worse yet, it’s not always officials who enforce the policy on unmarried women. The culture has been so shaped by the one-child-per-couple policy over 30 years that most women march themselves to the clinic or are taken there by a family member. Other options do not exist.
My own story is an example.
The first time I became pregnant, I was forced to abort. I did not understand then how much power the government of China had over my heart and my own body. I knew I felt weak, sick, powerless and heartbroken, but I did not attribute any of my pain to the policy. I thought my father, who had taken me to the clinic, was angry and ashamed of his daughter, and I knew I was deeply ashamed of myself. It took years before I realized that it was not my family that forced me to abort, but instead the one-child policy.
Little did I know that my father was protecting me from danger and even greater pain. Had I attempted to keep my baby, there is no question that I would have been kicked out of college and forced to hide from the government to avoid a more violent, and possibly unsafe, forced abortion. Many forced abortions and sterilizations are done in unsanitary conditions by untrained professionals. Again, most provinces in China require couples to be married to obtain a birth permit. No birth permit, no baby. My boyfriend and I were simply too young even to consider obtaining one.
After my traumatic experience at the clinic, no information was given to me about how to avoid a similar situation in the future. Sex education, abstinence training and even post-abortion contraception instructions are rare in China. Repeat pregnancies and forced abortions are commonplace. In fact, approximately 35 percent of the women in Beijing’s top 10 hospitals have second abortions shortly after a first one.
Chinese officials attribute the widespread use of abortion to a low level of sex education among young people. However, from examining the skyrocketing abortion rates since 1980, it is clear that the one-child policy is to blame. Clearly, the combination of both evils has created a massive problem.
More than 70 percent of callers to a pregnancy phone line at a Shanghai hospital knew almost nothing about contraception, China Daily reported. Just 17 percent were aware of venereal diseases, and less than 30 percent knew that HIV/AIDS could be transmitted sexually.
I’ve heard it said that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. In the case of China’s National Family Planning Commission, I can see quite a bit of both:
China’s sin of commission: forcing mothers to abort simply because they are unmarried.
China’s sin of omission: not teaching women how to avoid the same problem in the future.
China’s one-child-per-couple policy is outrageous for many reasons, but the way it discriminates against pregnant single women should be reason enough for all right-thinking people to demand its repeal.
Chai Ling is president of the nonprofit group All Girls Allowed and author of “A Heart for Freedom” (Tyndale House, 2011).