January 2016 officially marked the end of China’s contentious one-child policy of 36 years that made it illegal for couples to give birth to more than one baby, implemented to slow the country’s population growth rate. Since the end of the policy, couples of which at least one of the pair is an only child are legally permitted to have a second child.
Unsurprisingly, 2016 saw the highest birth rate in a century. With 17.86 million of births in total, there was an increase of 7.9% in childbirths compared to the year before according to China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission.
“Doctors suggest to relax existing surrogacy bans while still preventing commercialization of the practice.”
However, the figure still falls short of government’s estimations for the population to reach 1.42 billion by 2020, and might be too low to balance the consequences of the aging society and the shrinking workforce. By 2050, 370 million people in China are expected to be aged 65+ – it is often called a “demographic crisis.”
When dropping the one child policy, Chinese authorities also halted a plan to ban surrogate motherhood. Since 2001, the Ministry of Health laid out rules that made it illegal for medical staff to offer surrogacy services, and in 2015 there were official plans to completely curb surrogate pregnancies.
The timing of the reversal of the surrogacy ban was ambiguous, especially because it was called “unprecedented” for the Chinese government to reverse a draft law after it has already been publicized.
On Friday, an article in Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily enraged Chinese netizens as it focused on the topic of second pregnancies in older couples and suggested a legalization of surrogacy to give couples more opportunities to have a (second) child.
“In the ninety million families that are qualified to have the second child in China, 60% of women are over 35 years old and 50% are over 40. The fertility rate is obviously going down because women are getting older, and the average age for a woman to have a last pregnancy is generally around the age of 40. Therefore, doctors suggest to relax existing surrogacy bans while still preventing commercialization of the practice.”
Surrogacy often comes up when there are fertility problems or other reasons; a surrogate mother can carry the baby for a couple through artificial insemination of the father’s sperm, or, if possible, through IVF.
“They have totally gone mad! Surrogacy was illegal and now it is being promoted to increase birth rates!”
Perhaps uncoincidentally, one of the most controversial sketches of the CCTC Chinese New Year Gala last week focused on an older couple of which the woman was not able to conceive. The sketch also mentions the possibility of IVF, and led to angry reactions on Weibo of women who felt like the government was pushing women to have children.
Friday’s People’s Daily article also immediately triggered thousands of comments on Chinese social media. On Weibo, there were over 14K comments within several hours.
The vast majority of commenters criticized the article and made sarcastic comments about it: “They have totally gone mad! Surrogacy was illegal and now it is being promoted to increase birth rates!”
“We as Chinese women are not being treated as human beings but as breeding machines!” some wrote.
There were also netizens that sharply pointed out the improbability of the suggestion that surrogacy could be legalized without making it commercial: “I’ve never heard of any voluntary surrogate mothers. Whoever is willing to provide this kind of service for free? What can you say to surrogate mums? ‘Sorry I need to borrow your womb?'”
There are also those who sarcastically wondered: “If we are struggling with infertility, can we expect that child trafficking will also be legal one day?”
“Our wombs do not belong to ourselves, but to the country and the Party.”
Many commenters worry about the future of birth intervention in China, writing: “When I want to have more babies, it is prohibited. And now they’ve [suddenly] worked out this unethical way to force us to give birth. This is another insane form of birth control – they may eventually start to fine couples who don’t give birth one day.”
China’s strict control over children births has been controversial in international society for a long time.
At present, only rich parents can afford to resort to alternative ways to have a child, such a IVF and using surrogate mothers or receiving high-quality medical treatment in foreign clinics.
China’s huge underground market in surrogacy has thus been rapidly growing with demands largely exceeding supplies. According to the article, the number of couples suffering from infertility in China is about 15 million, which means that whether surrogacy remains illegal or not, it will still be a booming sector with potential profits.
There have been radical changes in China’s child policies over the recent years: from “over-produced” children being deprived of official documentation for basic social services to the wide-publicizing encouragement of second babies’ births.
“Our wombs do not belong to ourselves, but to the country and the Party,” one female Weibo user sadly commented.
(Featured image: the slogan on the wall in rural China has been edited after the change of policy. Photo credit to CNR. “Better to let the blood flows like river, not allowing to give birth to one more/less.”)
Additional editing by Manya Koetse
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