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Dispatches: Ending the One-Child Policy Does Not Equal Reproductive Freedom in China

The Chinese government’s announcement today that it will allow all couples to have two children finally puts an end to its decades-long “one-child” policy. It’s a positive step, and one likely to be greeted with joy by millions of couples, but it doesn’t change the fact that China’s family-planning policies remain coercive and abusive.

Women hold children's' hands as they wait to cross a street after school in downtown Shanghai September 12, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

Despite the relaxation, the state continues to play a deeply intrusive role in women’s reproductive choices and bodily autonomy, controlling both the number of children a couple can have and the intervals at which they can have them. The announcement contains few details, but says the state “insists on the basic national policy of family planning” – suggesting that broader family-planning policies remain unchanged. So it’s likely family-planning officials will continue imposing regular coerced gynecological examinations to check for out-of-quota pregnancies and pressure many women to insert intra-uterine devices to prevent them. Officials have enforced birth quotas for couples by imposing heavy fines, euphemistically known as “social maintenance fees.” In 2012 alone, two-thirds of China’s provinces and municipalities raked in more than US$2.7 billion in fines imposed on people who violated the policy. They have also coerced parents by linking access to vital services, such as the household registration (“hukou”) of children, which is a prerequisite for access to public services such as education, to compliance with family planning policies.

The policy change won’t provide relief to countless families who suffered punitive penalties for past violations. Wang Guangrong, a 37-year-old father of four, killed himself in March 2014, after he was told his children could not enroll in the local public primary school unless he paid astronomical fines of RMB22,5000 (US$3,600) for violating the policies. Nor will the change bring relief to the countless numbers of women who endured the pain and trauma of forced abortions.

In its announcement, authorities said the decision was prompted by a desire to bring relief to an aging population. It should go further and bring relief to all of the families who have had their most personal choices made for them, and all of the women who have suffered from the most intimate invasions of their right to freedom in making reproductive decisions.

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