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‘Women’s bodies as tools’: Beijing about-face on abortion sparks fear

From October of 1989, a Chinese woman who had become pregnant could see her doctor and ask for an abortion. The early abortion, taken up to two months after conception, was not surgical but a pill, taken in what was at the time one of the most advanced medical abortion regimes in the world.

Belgium, Denmark and Spain would follow after a decade, but it would take Australia another 27 years to approve the same drug, known widely as RU-486.

China’s one-child policy has failed to arrest a declining fertility rate.

China’s one-child policy has failed to arrest a declining fertility rate.Credit:AP

In Beijing, abortions were encouraged and sometimes forced by the state to stop the 1 billion strong population from climbing. There were at least 5 million terminations a year. It was part of the family planning toolkit imposed by the Chinese Communist Party under the one-child policy, along with contraception and sterilisation.

“China is the only country in the world that assesses no penalty for having or performing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy, as long as the procedure is carried out by authorised personnel,” said anthropologist Susan Rigdon, who studied Chinese abortion law in China and at the University of Illinois.

For 30 years the birth rate slowed. Fewer were born in Shanghai and Beijing but also in the smaller cities of Tianjin, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. By 2020, 18.7 per cent of China’s population was 60 years or older up from 13.3 per cent a decade earlier, with fewer young workers to pay for ballooning pension and hospital bills.

Now, faced with a demographic problem of its own creation, the Chinese government wants to reduce “not medically necessary” abortions. The move, announced on Monday by the State Council, contained few details but sparked an immediate response from a public growing tired of decades of state interventions in their lives.

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Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said it was unclear what specific policies the government has planned to reduce “non-medically necessary” abortions.

“But given its history of restricting women’s right to reproductive choice and bodily autonomy through abusive, and sometimes violent, means, this development is a grave cause for concern,” she said.

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