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The cost of abortion: A ‘virtual America’ disappears inside China

Child in snow
 A Chinese child plays near an imperial temple in Beijing Wednesday. Photo Feng Li/Reuters


Chinese-born funnyman Joe Wong likes to begin his comedy skits by saying, “I grew up in China – who didn’t?”

With its population of 1.3 billion people, China really can seem like a world unto itself.

And each year, another 18 million Chinese infants are ushered into the world, even with the country’s well-known one-child policy.

But there could have been more – much more – had it not been for abortion.

This month China’s Health Ministry revealed that China has performed more than 330 million abortions since 1971, a number equal to the entire population of the United States.


During an earlier time, ambitious Communist Party officials at the county level would do whatever it took to meet their family planning targets, and forced abortions were common.

After all, meeting such targets meant a shot at advancement.

While forced abortions still occur today, they’re rarer.

Senior Chinese leaders don’t like the bad publicity that ensues whenever a foreign correspondent happens on a harrowing story of a pregnant mother pressured into an abortion.

But now, some sense a frisson of change in the air.

For years there has been speculation that the one-child policy would be relaxed and ultimately scrapped.

Demographers warn that China is barreling towards a crisis: a future in which there won’t be enough people working to comfortably support those retiring.

Plus, with China’s age-old preference for male heirs, millions of female fetuses have been aborted in favour of trying for a son again – leaving a glaring gender imbalance. In today’s China there are 34 million more men than there are women, a gap roughly equal to the total population of Canada.

This month the government announced that the National Population and Family Planning Commission will, for the first time, be brought under the control of the health ministry.

State media insist that this is not a prelude to the end of the one-child policy, but a move that will allow government to enhance it.

Still, some smell change.

He Yafu, a respected Chinese demographer told the Financial Times bluntly, “the power of the family planning unit will be reduced.”

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller 


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