China: how can the one-child policy and rights-based family planning be reconciled in the face of recently reported abuses?

July 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

Lisa Hallgarten, RHM social media and communications

Marge Berer, RHM editor

Two recent news stories from China have reawakened concern about overzealous enforcement of China’s one-child policy and the emergence of voices critical of the policy and its implementation. Historically, being a country with 25% of the total world population within its borders, China’s population policy has addressed a unique set of social, demographic and political circumstances, and overall, it appears to have had widespread support from the public. However, these two reports have resonated internally and far beyond its shores.

In the United States, the story of Chen Guangcheng ,the Chinese civil rights activist imprisoned and persecuted for exposing and protesting against abuses of women being forced to have abortions against their will, in the name of Chinese government policies, has been co-opted by anti-abortion US activists. Though he has spoken out mainly against the brutality of forced abortions, not abortion per se, he is being used as a poster boy by the US anti-abortion, anti-contraception movement. Stories of forced abortion, and other human rights abuses associated with the one-child policy, are being presented as the logical conclusion of all and any family planning policies.

In one of two recent stories that hit the press due to US publicity, a mother of one was snatched from her home and forced to have an abortion. The procedure went tragically wrong and just hours later the 38-year-old woman was dead.  In another report, a woman who was seven months pregnant was also forced to have an abortion.  The story and pictures of the woman lying beside the aborted fetus were posted on the internet, generating over a million hits on Chinese social media networks. In response, the officials in the second of these cases lost their jobs and were prosecuted  More recently the women was given financial compensation as well.

At the same time, a flurry of anecdotes from other parts of China have started to emerge about the practice of forced abortions: contradicting the official party line that such practices – especially abortions in late pregnancy – are illegal, rare and not countenanced by the government.

A look at the Population and Family Planning Law of China  is instructive. It aims to maximise contraceptive use and minimise population growth by providing local and district officials with financial and other rewards for meeting family planning targets. The motivation this might create for officials to be overzealous in their implementation of the policy is tempered with tepid instructions not to infringe the rights of women and families and to promote family planning using incentives rather than coercion. In one of the cases above, the woman and her husband were threatened with a huge fee if they wished to continue the pregnancy, which they could not have afforded. This raises questions of which incentives and disincentives, if any, are acceptable to the population, how to prevent coercion, what to do when it happens, and what rights women have to redress and compensation when coercion has been shown to take place. Underlying these questions are broader policy issues – whether it is possible to reconcile the need to limit population growth with its attendant targets for coverage of contraception and even abortion.

The Family Planning Summit in London this month said that the funding associated with the new FP Initiative will explicitly NOT be used to support coercive family planning. It did, however, set ambitious targets for contraceptive coverage, though when criticism was raised, the language was changed to read contraceptive access. Whether it will be possible to achieve a huge increase in contraceptive use without incentives and targets, and how this relates to donor expectations with “results-based financing”, remain on the table for discussion. The consequences for informed choice and the right to use or not to use a method hang in the balance. At the same time, given the many barriers to accessing as well as using contraception successfully in the world’s most underserved communities, there will be enormous pressure to prove that the initiative really can give 120 million more women access to contraception.

The anti-abortion, anti-contraception movement would love to discredit the whole programme, as they have sought to do for years in the United States as regards the Chinese policy. Everyone who supports the right to control fertility needs to be committed to ensuring that any new programmes providing contraception will have women’s rights at their heart in practice. If they don’t, this one-off commitment of money may never be repeated.

Also in the news on this issue:
A group of Chinese scholars have written an open letter calling for revision of the one-child policy. They argue that the policy is bad for human rights and also for sustainable economic development.  Some Chinese demographers have said the one-child policy will damage the country as low fertility rates threaten a shortfall in the productive labour force needed to fund the ageing population.

We have no idea whether these statements are typical of public views. The public debate that has ensued inside China since these reports have come out must be multi-faceted and far from one-sided. We would be happy to receive further reports of the many points of viewbeing expressed in this debate, including by the government, as it unfolds within China.

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