China will aim to reduce the prevalence of “medically unnecessary” abortions, according to guidelines released by the central government on Monday, as part of a sweeping plan for women’s and children’s health over the next decade.
The language in the plan, which was published by the State Council, China’s cabinet, was contained in just one sentence. It did not specify how the government would encourage that reduction or whether it would involve restrictions on access to abortions; the plan also promised to increase women’s access to birth control.
A plan for the previous decade, released in 2011, contained similar language.
But the promise immediately drew attention on social media given increasingly urgent efforts by the government in recent years to promote childbirth and slow the population’s aging. And many Chinese people are wary of the government’s reach into their private family planning decisions because of the authorities’ history of intrusive policies.
“This isn’t a new policy. But before, people didn’t pay attention to it,” said Feng Yuan, the founder of Equality, a Beijing-based feminist organization. “It’s a reflection of the fact that, under the new pressure to have children, people have a new mentality when reading policies.”
The history of abortion in modern China is closely tied to the government’s population goals. Under the one-child policy, which was implemented in 1980, officials at times forced women to undergo abortions and sterilizations.
But over the past decade, as the government has realized the potential economic consequences of a slow-growing population, officials have pivoted to exhorting women to have more children. The one-child policy was lifted in 2015. In May, the government announced that families would be permitted to have three children.
But public reaction to that permission was tepid at best. And some have worried that officials will turn to more coercive measures.
Obtaining an abortion can already be a somewhat cumbersome process in China. Because of many families’ longstanding preference for boys over girls, sex-selective abortions are illegal, and many regions require women to produce certificates of medical necessity. In Jiangxi Province, for example, women who are more than 14 weeks pregnant must obtain three signatures from medical personnel.
Officials have also expressed concern about abortions as a manifestation of eroding family values. In 2018, the National Health Commission warned against what it called the country’s “large number” of abortions, roughly nine million a year. In addition to citing potential health risks, it also said that the procedure could lead to infertility that would “affect family harmony and happiness.”
On social media on Monday, after some state-backed news outlets highlighted the line about abortion in the guidelines, some users wondered whether more restrictions were on the way. “Contraception can fail, so not finding a partner is the safest bet,” said one popular comment on the Weibo social media platform.
In general, many women are deeply suspicious of how the government will try to boost the country’s anemic birthrates, said Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist. Earlier this year, the government imposed a cooling-off period for couples seeking divorce, which some saw as a way of forcing women to stay in marriages and have children.
“Chinese women are always forced by the state and used by the state,” Ms. Lu said in an interview in June, noting that some women had worried about potential limits on contraception, which is currently widely available.
Those fears do not seem to have materialized yet. Monday’s report in fact promised to improve women’s access to contraception, as well as to increase sex education.
Ms. Feng, the founder of the Beijing-based organization, emphasized that the lone mention of reducing abortions came in a long report of more than 50,000 Chinese characters. She pointed to other parts of the report that she called encouraging, such as pledges to combat gender discrimination in the workplace, improve educational opportunities for women and promote sharing housework between men and women.
Still, she acknowledged the yawning gap between official rhetoric and reality. State media outlets have recently attacked the perceived “feminization” of Chinese men, and social media platforms have censored feminist activists. Though the report affirms the authorities’ stance against sexual harassment, a judge this month ruled against the plaintiff in the most high-profile harassment case to come out of China’s Me Too movement.
“Women’s development involves many responsible departments,” Ms. Feng said. “And how those responsible departments implement their specific measures requires more attention and promotion.”
Joy Dong contributed research